The way Alaska does it….

90 days


Session limit hasn't worked

Some legislators are griping that Gov. Sarah Palin didn't submit two of her top priority bills until nearly halfway through the voter-mandated 90 day legislative session.

It's getting too late to finish up work on those bills this session, they say. If the measures were so important, the argument goes, she should have had them in sooner — and critics note she might have been able to do this if she hadn't been so busy last fall running for vice-president.

Gov. Palin's side responded with a jibe at legislators for basically taking a week off so nearly half of them could attend an energy conference in Washington D.C. Each side has a valid point, but pointing fingers is not going to ensure the business of the state gets done. Alaskans want the state's business done reasonably quickly and reasonably well — but the 90-day session limit isn't helping on either count.

Last year lawmakers were in session for 150 days, despite the nominal 90-day limit. The year before, they worked 121 days.

What happens is this: During the 90-day regular session, lawmakers spend their limited time focusing on non-controversial matters or highly time-sensitive tasks like passing the budget. A complicated or politically charged issue like the gas line or oil tax reform has to be handled in a special session.

North Pole Republican state Rep. John Coghill Jr. (R) is not a lawmaker who's happy to stick around Juneau collecting per diem and passing unneeded laws. He likes less government — but he worries that the 90-day session limit is producing worse government.

The shorter session means less legislative oversight of the executive branch and fewer opportunities for the public to be heard, Rep. Coghill told the Juneau Empire.

"You want to allow your Legislature ample opportunity to discover what the administration is doing," he said. "Did you really get less government, or are you just turning over authority to the bureaucrats?"

Also, in a short session, bad bills have a better chance of getting passed. When lawmakers need to act, committees are pressured to keep a bill moving and cut short the time they spend dealing with technical details that can make or break a new law. In the rush to "do something" about an issue, lawmakers may not take the time to make sure that "something" is well-thought-out.

Two years have passed since voters told legislators to take only 90 days for a regular session. In those two years, lawmakers have worked an average of 135 days. That's an average of two full weeks beyond the old 121-day session limit.

This is not a case where less is better. Setting a deadline for legislative work helps force lawmakers to finish up instead of dragging things out. But the last two years have shown that the 121-day limit set in the state constitution is a more reasonable deadline.

BOTTOM LINE: The old session limit of 121 days worked better for Alaska.

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