Beam Me Up, Scotty: After 200 Days Legislators Have Now Left Orbit

If you’ve managed to escape the crazy antics of politicians in Juneau this year, my hat goes off to you. On any other year, you would be among the majority of Alaskans who generally find more important things to do than read every word of a politician’s that finds it way into a local newspaper. But with the Alaska Legislature having spent more than 200 days in session this year, and still going strong, the antics of those politicians are getting harder and harder to escape. Of course, for those of us with front row seats to this Kabuki Theater, there is no escape.

And this past week was pure Kabuki.

On Tuesday, the Alaska House of Representatives approved the Criminal Justice Bill (SB54), with 80% of legislators voting in favor of it.
Passage of SB54 was celebrated with several rounds of back-slapping and chest-bumping from those who voted for it, and also from the governor.

After the vote, the governor issued a formal press release and declared:

“I thank the House for moving to respond to Alaskans’ concerns about public safety by passing Senate Bill 54…I look forward to seeing the Senate concur, and to signing the bill when it reaches my desk.” –Governor Bill Walker

On Friday, the Alaska Senate met and, following recommendations from both the House and the governor, voted to approve SB54 and send it to the governor’s desk for signature. After passing SB54, the senate then voted to go home for good on Day 200 of the legislative session.
That’s when all hell broke loose. You see, the House has been counting on the Senate to reject the bill, but the Senate decided to accept it as-is and go home.

You would have thought they had just taken an ice cream cone from a starving child.

The outrage from the governor and from House leadership confirms beyond all doubt that it really is possible to spend too much time in Juneau, and that the 200 days spent in Juneau this year have clearly had their effect.

Outrage from the House was as swift as it was stern. Immediately following the vote, the Speaker of the House declared:

“What we witnessed today by the State Senate was an abdication of their responsibilities. They allowed a constitutionally flawed bill to be sent to the Governor and they worsened the ongoing recession and fiscal crisis by refusing to even consider a new revenue proposal.”

Yes, this was exactly the same bill that House Leadership had boasted about passing only three days earlier. This was also the same “urgently needed bill” that House Leadership had tossed into a desk drawer and ignored from April 7th until October 23rd.

The governor also did an about-face shortly after the Senate passed the bill. After first saying “I look forward to seeing the Senate concur, and to signing the bill when it reaches my desk”, he issued a new press release in which he said that SB54 “contains some issues that must be further addressed by the Legislature,” signaling that he no longer looked forward to signing it.

House Leadership has since indicated that they have no desire to end the special session, and that they will “force the Senate back to Juneau.” And so, after returning home to partake in Veterans Day events in the Mat-Su yesterday, I will be flying back to Juneau tonight to participate in Day 203 of the legislative session, and cast a vote in favor of finally ending this special session once and for all.

In 1981, the legislature spent 168 days in session, and this was considered such an outrageous abuse that the people took the extraordinary step of passing a constitutional amendment to prohibit such a thing from ever happening again.

In 2006, the governor and the legislature attempted to circumvent that amendment and proceeded to spend a jaw-dropping 189 days in session. An initiative was immediately circulated that culminated in the passage of a new state law imposing a 90-Day Limit on all future legislative sessions.

That law, Alaska Statute 24.05.150, states:

“The legislature shall adjourn from a regular session within 90 consecutive calendar days, including the day the legislature first convenes in that regular session.”

This year, the governor and the legislature attempted to circumvent both the constitutional amendment and the 90-Day Session Law, and held session for an unprecedented 180 days straight. At present, the legislature is in its 4th special session this year, and has already been in session a total of 203 days since January.

Keep in mind, every day that the legislature is in session is a day that legislators like Sen. Mike Dunleavy are legally prohibited from campaigning for governor, while the sitting governor and lieutenant governor are exempt from such restrictions.

Keep in mind that if you were considering running to replace your lack-luster legislator next year, the idea of another 200-day session may give you pause before doing so. If not you, it is quite likely to give your employer pause, if you happen to be employed, or your spouse pause, if you happen to be married.

Keep in mind also, that if you are among the handful of legislators currently working to turn this ship around, this year’s 200-day session may have already put you in a tough spot with your employer, and your time in Juneau this year has likely come at the price of time away from your family and your community.

There can also be no doubt at this point that this year’s endless legislative session was both calculated and deliberate. Thanks to the governor we are now in our fourth special session this year, in addition to the 90-day session laid out in state law. And thanks to a majority of legislators in the House, SB54 and its reforms to SB91 were thrown into a desk drawer back on April 7th and did not see the light of day until SB54 was brought out to help justify yet another special session at the end of October.

Of course, now that SB54 has successfully passed the legislature and the Senate has voted to adjourn, you would think that the governor and the House have run out of excuses to keep this party going. You would think that.

But House Democrat Leadership is now openly talking about dragging out the special session until Day 211, the date on which the 30-day constitutional limit for special sessions will go into effect for the third time this year.

The message from the governor and House Leadership seems to be: “the show must go on–and we can force the show to go on.”

But the show does not need to go on, and frankly, there isn’t anything they’ve accomplished this year that couldn’t have been accomplished in the first 90 days.

In English class, I remember being taught to ask the question “what is the word ‘therefore’ there for?” I think every Alaskan needs to stop and ask the question “what is the legislature there for?”

Why are legislators in Juneau in the middle of November?

Why are they now asked to spend more time in Juneau than they do in the districts they represent?

Under these circumstances, does it even make sense to continue to refer to them as part-time legislators?

And what’s to be done with a legislature that has lost touch with a majority of Alaskans?

One fix would be to abolish the legislature, but that inevitably just gives more power to the governor. Another fix would be to make it more difficult to serve in the legislature, but that makes it more difficult to elect good people to the legislature and increases the likelihood that the current crop of legislators will be re-elected indefinitely.

A more effective plan would be to change out those legislators who have spent so much time in Juneau this year that they have seen fit to give leadership the votes needed to drag this session out to the very bitter end.

In the end, as with all things in politics, this show will go on just as long as the people permit it to go on. When the dull roar of unhappy voters becomes a loud roar, politicians will run for cover.