Contributed by David Eastman
Since the last issue of The People’s Paper, Alaska legislators voted on whether or not to pass a state capital budget negotiated by House Democrats and Senate Republicans without input from the public, and without an opportunity for most Alaskans to even read the bill. A compromise was reached and the legislature voted to call itself back to Juneau to pass the bill, all while the final bill itself was put under lock and key and many legislators were not even permitted to see a copy. Even those legislators who were “in the know” agreed not to seek input from the public until the very day legislators were flying back to Juneau for the one-day session. Why?
In order to get the answer, you will have to ask the House Democrats and Senate Republicans. House Republicans, myself included, were not invited to attend those conversations. But regardless of the political motivations, one thing is clear: The process chosen by legislators was a recipe for ensuring that “the most important" special interests got their demands met and everyone else got to find out about it afterward.
Is this really what 21st century democracy has come to in Alaska? As the final budget was not made public even after a compromise had already been decided and the votes counted, how were Alaskans to have a voice in how their money was going to be spent? They weren’t.
Alaskans were denied that right because legislators in Juneau felt no need to honor it. Legislators have voted against the will of the people so many times this year that they no longer even see the benefit of going through the motions of seeking public comment. And so we have now reached a point where the process supported by the current crop of Alaska legislators fundamentally denies that it is even the public's money that we are talking about spending. Those in Juneau now treat our state capital budget as a joint savings account owned by sixty legislators and the governor. It is not.
This process is not what the people of Alaska consented to. It erodes Alaskans' confidence in our political institutions, and undermines the ability of the people of Alaska to engage in self-government, as laid out in our Alaska Constitution. Never before in history has the Alaska Legislature been continuously in session in Juneau for 180 days, away from the people who voted the legislators into office.
The legislature has been in session for six months this year, despite direction from the people and current state law, that the legislature complete its work in the regular ninety-day session. Even Texas doesn’t have its legislators meet continuously for 180 days. The Texas Legislature only meets every other year.
As if three special sessions this year were not enough, the governor is now thinking about calling legislators back to Juneau for a fourth special session in October. If he does, I’m sure he will first attempt to come up with a politically popular reason for doing so. The question to ask at that point is whether or not that work could have been accomplished at some point in the first 181 days that the legislature has already been in session this year. With as many cancelled meetings and “technical sessions” as we have seen this year, it almost certainly could have been.
Some fear that the governor has thus far refused to permit legislators to discuss public safety in any of his previously called special sessions so that he can use crime as an excuse to bring legislators back to Juneau again this fall. Certainly unpopular legislators would be much obliged to the governor if he gave them an opportunity to take credit for trying to solve Alaska’s crime epidemic going into next year’s elections.
But regardless of the political games, one thing is very important to remember. Alaskans have not consented to having a full-time legislature. And when they have been asked about allowing the legislature to extend the regular session passed ninety days, they have said, “No.” This year, the legislature doubled that amount, and then called themselves back into session to increase that amount still further.
Under our state constitution, special sessions should be reserved for actual emergencies and unforeseen events - not used as a way to violate the statutory limits placed on the legislature by the people. This governor and legislature have proposed to reinterpret those limits. Will the public accept this new state of affairs, in essence transforming our elected representatives into full-time legislators? The jury is out on that question today, but stay tuned. The jury will return with its verdict next year on Election Day. If the governor and the current batch of legislators are re-elected, Alaska will have its answer and we can all know what to expect going forward.
Rep. David Eastman represents rural 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.