Contributed by David Eastman
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 its 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.
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 the 80% of legislators who voted for it, and also from the governor.
• On Tuesday morning, 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.
You would have thought that they had just taken an ice cream cone from a starving child!
The outrage that this vote sparked 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. 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, I flew back to Juneau 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 the response of the people was to pass 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, which resulted in the immediate passage of the 90-day limit on legislative sessions at the next election in 2008.
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, and which has now already reached 203 days total this year.
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, the idea of 200-day sessions has likely put you in a tough spot with your employer, and your time in Juneau 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. The governor has called repeated special sessions this year, in addition to the 90-day session laid out in current state law. The majority of legislators in the House decided on April 7th to shelve SB54 along with its reforms to SB91 until they could be brought out to justify a special session in October.
In the end, this show will go on just as long as the people let it go on.