Day 182 of the Legislative Session: And A New Crisis

(Waving goodbye to Juneau this summer from the Alaska Ferry after being in session for 6 months straight)

“No man’s life, liberty, or property are safe while the legislature is in session.” – Mark Twain

Our youngest daughter turned one this summer. My wife and I happened to do the math, and realized that at one, she had already spent more of her life in Juneau than she had in the Mat-Su. For those who missed it, the legislature already spent more than 180 days in Juneau this year. Even so, Governor Walker has called legislators back to Juneau this week for a 4th special session.

Never before has an Alaska governor called a 4th special session in a single year. In fact, before Walker, a 3rd special session had been called only once. By contrast, Walker has now averaged three special sessions in each of his three years as governor.

Voters have rightly picked up on the fact that special sessions cost money—their money. But few Alaskans have picked up on the many less tangible costs of these endless special sessions.

Already this year the legislature has earned the title of the longest continuously serving legislature in state history. At 180 days straight, the previous record of 165 days (set in 1981) didn’t even come close. Older Alaskans will of course remember 1981 as the year when the length of the legislative session so thoroughly disgusted voters that they were inspired to amend the Alaska State Constitution to prohibit such a thing from ever happening again.

They first imposed a constitutional limit of 120 days on legislative sessions, with the possibility of a single extension of no more than 10 days. When sessions continued to surpass 120 days, voters then passed a law limiting regular sessions to 90 days. Of course, the governor has already doubled that number this year through continuous, repeated “special” sessions. But what is so special about legislative sessions that drag on year after year?

Since Walker took office in 2014, the average time in session each year has already reached the same 165 days that first inspired voters to revolt in 1981. With a fourth special session now about to begin, that average will only continue to grow, to the point that we now face a wholly different crisis than the fiscal one spoken of by the governor.

Our political system was designed with part-time, citizen legislators in mind. It was not designed to withstand the pressures that inevitably arise once legislators begin spending the majority of their time in Juneau.

By law, legislators are forbidden from campaigning or fundraising any time that the legislature is in session (including special sessions). And while voters may welcome less campaigning in the short term, the long-term ramifications of three or more special sessions a year are deeply problematic.

A sitting governor can campaign whether the legislature is in session or not. He can fundraise whether the legislature is in session or not. Many of the candidates he would normally be running against (as members of the legislature) have no such ability. Without the ability to campaign and fundraise, candidates will not file for office, and voters will have fewer choices on Election Day. Even those few who do file for office are likely to be severely handicapped in a year when multiple special sessions take place. A governor running for re-election therefore has much to gain politically by repeatedly calling the legislature into session. The lieutenant governor receives the same advantage when he can campaign and his opponents cannot.

Even in years when he is not running for re-election, the governor has the ability to profoundly affect the elections of others simply by calling repeated special sessions. Last year was an election year. Even so, the legislature was in session for nearly 160 days. Being unable to campaign or fundraise for nearly 160 days during an election year is a significant handicap for any legislator. Candidates outside the legislature experienced no such restrictions. At this point, no one doubts that this disparity contributed to a number of legislators losing their races in the last election.

As special sessions are now becoming the new norm, legislators are having to spend more time campaigning in non-election years to make up for the limited ability to campaign during election years. Rather than legislators being permitted to take a step back from politics in the off-season, exactly the opposite is now taking place. Our elected officials, who filed to run as part-time, citizen legislators, are now having to respond to pressures more typically felt by full-time legislators in states like California and Pennsylvania.

With a 90 day session, it is reasonable to expect legislators to be present to represent their constituents each day the legislature is in session. When legislators are in session for most of the year, it is much more likely that conflicts will arise (weddings, graduations, family emergencies, etc.) that keep legislators from being able to vote, thus depriving their constituents of representation. Also, when sessions drag on, it is easier for legislators to find excuses to be absent from the capitol when tough votes are about to be taken.

After 180 days, you may also encounter the surprising phenomenon, as occurred this year, of legislators actually boasting of not working in Juneau during the legislative session, and explaining their absence as a type of “cost savings” to the public. But the cost of being absent for significant portions of the legislative session is inevitably paid by one’s constituents.

It would be quite nice if legislators could return home each weekend with full confidence in being able to fly back to Juneau in time to make any important meetings or votes, but then again, we are talking about politics here.

To cite but one example from earlier this year, my senator took a trip back to the district and made plans to fly back to Juneau in order to vote on this year’s budget. He coordinated his travel with his colleagues in the senate, and flew back to Juneau for the vote. He arrived in Juneau as planned, and on his way from the Juneau airport to the capitol building, the senate decided to go ahead and hold the vote without him, thereby denying nearly 40,000 Alaskans the opportunity to have our vote counted on this year’s budget. Politics.

At 90 days, legislators can maintain businesses and careers outside of the legislature. At 190 days, spread unpredictably throughout the year, most of those opportunities simply disappear. In short, having a part-time legislature requires having part-time expectations of our legislators. When those expectations get out of whack, you eventually end up with the majority of legislators having no other livelihood to turn to outside of politics.

When legislators are forced to cut back or give up on outside employment, they become increasingly susceptible to financial pressures. This not only impacts legislators and their families, but also future candidates as well. When it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain a career outside the legislature, many candidates simply choose not to run for office. I hope you like your current legislators. If better candidate don’t run for office, you could be stuck with them for life.

On a purely practical note, as outside employment opportunities dry up, longer sessions will perpetuate still longer sessions, as it becomes increasingly difficult for legislators to say “no” to future special sessions if those special sessions can help offset wages that were lost. Likewise, once the public has grown accustomed to the longer sessions, there is even less pressure on legislators to work quickly when they are in the capital. Politicians love to be needed, so there is a natural tendency for part-time legislatures to want to be more like the full-time legislatures of California, Pennsylvania and Michigan.

Perhaps most troubling of all, spending 180 or more days in session each year impacts not only how legislators see themselves, but also how they see and interact with their fellow elected officials. Moments before legislators finally did leave Juneau this summer, voters were treated to a rare moment of candor from a senior legislator. It was just before midnight, and it’s likely that few members of the public were watching when Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux (R-Anchorage) rose to address the House of Representatives and declared: “We’re really kind of like a family…”

You see, when sessions last no more than 90 days, legislators end up spending most of their time, and pursuing most of their social interaction, outside of Juneau. But when you begin to spend most of your life in a place, it is simply human nature that you will begin investing more heavily in friendships and relationships with those you are likely to be spending most of your time with, year after year.

This is really not all that surprising. Some will even argue that the more time legislators spend together, and the better legislators get to know one another, the more efficient things will be in Juneau. But there is a group that inevitably gets left out of this otherwise beautiful arrangement: namely, voters. And while it may initially sound heartwarming to hear legislators talk about looking out for each other as a family, it should also give us pause. Families come together to support one another and protect each other from outsiders. And increasingly today, it’s the people back home who are the outsiders.

While little progress has been made toward solving our state’s fiscal woes, the nine special sessions since Walker took office have done one thing; they’ve created a brand new crisis, and every day that the legislature is in session only exacerbates that crisis.

Rep. David Eastman is a conservative legislator representing the Mat-Su (House District 10); He ran on a platform of fighting for genuine conservative reform, fiscally and socially, and remains committed to delivering on that promise.