Not All Legislators Agree On Session Length

Ever since voters decided to shorten the legislative session to 90 days, there’s been an expectation that lawmakers will call special sessions to add more time to the clock. This year, they didn’t. It was only the second time that’s happened since the initiative passed. But even though legislators met the deadline this year, not all of them are convinced it’s a good system. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports.

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If you want to find an issue that everyone in the Capitol can disagree upon, regardless of party, it’s the length of the legislative session. You might not even find consensus within a single office, as Sen. Mike Dunleavy, a Mat-Su Republican, learned.

DUNLEAVY: “How do you guys feel about the length of the session? Should it be longer or shorter?”
STAFFER #1: “Thirty days!”
STAFFER #2: “120 was good.”
DUNLEAVY: “You’re the worst staff. One said thirty, one said 120, and one said nothing at all.”

Dunleavy has his own opinion.

“If you’re asking if it should be longer or shorter, I think it should be shorter to be honest with you. I think the committee meetings, um, we should probably hold them throughout the year. Throughout the summer, spring, fall, and condense the session even more, and just hear bills on the floor.”

The 90-day session came about in 2006, when voters narrowly passed an initiative to cut the amount of time lawmakers spend in Juneau down by a month. The idea was that it would force the legislature to save money, enable people with families and outside jobs to run for office, and get work done faster. There isn’t evidence that the initiative has succeeded in the first two things, but it’s definitely put the legislature on hyperdrive.

Rep. Lynn Gattis, a Wasilla Republican, is okay with that.

“You had to get up early in the morning. You had to work late in the evening. You definitely had to work on weekends. But 90 days is enough.”

As a freshman legislator, Gattis says she’s had to cram to get caught up on all of the policy debates going on in the building. It’s been tough, but she thinks that if she can do it, then lawmakers who have been there for years should be able to handle it, too. For example, she points out that an overhaul of the state’s oil tax structure isn’t just something the legislature took up in January — it’s been going on for years. She says you can also do work in the interim.

But even though Gattis is a fan of the 90-day rule, she was kind of amused by all of the speculation that comes with the prospect of a special session.

“So, I’m walking down the hallway, ‘You guys, are we going to have a special session?’ Some of the people who had been here twenty, thirty years: ‘Yeah, we’re going to have a special session!’ I said, ‘Well, for how long?’ Some said 10, some said 20, some said 30. Even had kind of miniature bets in regard to it. Clearly, even the folks who had been here forever were unable to determine what it is.”

Because the legislature has gone into special session more often than not, a lot of legislators from both sides of the aisle have come to a different conclusion than Gattis. They think the 90-day limit just isn’t working.

In 2011, Sen. Gary Stevens, a Republican from Kodiak, introduced a bill that would allow for a 90-day session one year and then a 120-day session the next. While the bill died in the House, it passed in the Senate with bipartisan support. And the handful of senators who opposed it? Well, they were a mix of liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans.

Sen. Johnny Ellis, an Anchorage Democrat who has held office since the 1980s, was among those who supported that bill.

“My perspective as a long-time serving legislator — and seeing the ups and downs, the vagaries and the process — the 90 days does not serve the public well.”

Ellis has a lot of issues with the shorter session: it means less time for constituents and more power for the governor’s office. Smaller issues that are still important are more likely to be tossed by the wayside. Ellis also says that shrinking the session allows — and may even encourage — bad process, like limiting time for public testimony and holding committee hearings and floor votes long past midnight.

“Things were rammed through that deserved more time and attention.”

But even though he has a lot of problems with the shorter session, and even though he’s not alone in that, Ellis doesn’t see much will to override the voter initiative. He thinks it’ll take a few more years before voters or lawmakers will want to reconsider how long politicians should be in Juneau. For now at least, the 90-day session looks like it’s here to stay.