As fiscal woes continue, Alaska’s special legislative sessions aren’t so special anymore

JUNEAU – On Monday, the Alaska Legislature begins its fourth special session of 2021 with a record in sight.

If lawmakers work up to the 30-day sessional limit, they will have been in session for 217 days this year, the most in a year since Alaska’s first territorial legislature convened in 1912.

Since 2006, the number of special sessions has increased dramatically, due to budget struggles, increased polarization among lawmakers and the priorities of the last state governors.

This trend has increased the state budget and undermined the state’s goal of having a “part-time citizen legislature”.

Financial disclosure forms show that few of Alaska’s 60 lawmakers are working outside, in part because the sessions have become so long.

In 2016, many lawmakers already viewed the Legislature as a full-time job. That year saw them in session for 157 days. The following year they were in session for 211. This year’s count is 187 days.

Three of the five longest legislative years have taken place since 2014.

Nationally, special sessions are not unusual

The National Conference of State Legislatures considers Alaska to be one of 10 states with a “full-time” or “full-time” legislative branch, depending on pay, time worked and number of employees. ’employees.

This year, Alaska is the only state with a Legislature which held four extraordinary sessions, according to a schedule maintained by the NCSL.

This figure is somewhat misleading: eleven states do not limit the length of their regular legislative sessions. This avoids having to call most of the special sessions.

Alaska was like that too. As originally written, the Constitution of Alaska did not limit the duration of the ordinary session. According to Gordon Harrison, who wrote an annotated guide to the constitution, its authors believed the legislature should not be rushed because “the affairs of state government are too complex to be dealt with in rushed and infrequent sessions.” .

In the first decade after government accession, legislative sessions were relatively short. The first to exceed 90 days dates from 1969.

When oil revenues inflated the state budget, sessions increased and voters became unhappy with the length of those sessions.

In 1984, Alaskans voted 3 to 1 to approve a constitutional amendment to limit the length of a regular session to 120 days. (This was later changed to 121 days by a decision of the Alaska Supreme Court.)

Subsequently, special sessions became more common, although still infrequent.

In 2006, after three unprecedented extraordinary sessions, voters approved a voting measure reducing the ordinary session to 90 days.

Because this limit is not in the state constitution, it is effectively optional for lawmakers. They only reached the 90-day goal once without also calling a special session.

Blair Hess, spokesperson for the Council of State Governments, said by national standards, “it’s not too unusual to have four sessions per year. Last year (in 2020), several states held four or five special sessions, mainly due to the necessary COVID-19 policies and measures. “

But in Alaska, the special sessions were not motivated by COVID-19. They were caused by the state’s struggles with oil revenues and the Permanent Fund dividend.

“It’s all in the PFD and the budget. It is what it is, ”said House Speaker Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak.

“When you don’t have money, it’s more difficult”

From the late 2000s to 2014, high oil prices meant that the state had enough revenue to pay the budget, develop infrastructure, and save billions on various accounts.

In 2014, prices plunged, as did state revenues.

“When you don’t have the money, it’s harder to do the things you think should be done,” said Mike Chenault, then Speaker of the House.

Chenault, a Republican, was in charge of State House for the first two years of Independent Governor Bill Walker’s tenure. There have been five special sessions in those two years, most of them occurring as Walker tried to get lawmakers to pass a tax and tax plan.

Chenault said Walker’s plans lacked support and he urged House lawmakers to put them to a floor vote. If they rejected them, it might have dissuaded Walker from calling additional sessions.

“And I couldn’t convince my guys to do it. So the governor kept calling us back. And then we sat there and spun our wheels, ”said Chenault.

The scheme continued in a different form after Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy was elected in 2018, beating Walker behind a pledge to pay a bigger dividend to the Permanent Fund.

In 2019, Dunleavy proposed significant budget cuts in order to pay this dividend.

Lawmakers rejected these ideas, and the debate between branches of government extended into several special sessions.

This year, the governor proposed using a portion of the Alaska Permanent Fund’s record income to pay a larger dividend.

Lawmakers rejected the idea, in large part because it would force them to exceed the annual spending limit of the Permanent Fund. Because fund income is the largest source of revenue for utilities, they argue that spending more of the fund now will mean less income later, thus necessitating tax increases or service cuts.

The governor does not agree with this assessment and has called the Legislative Assembly in extraordinary session. The Permanent Fund gained a record 30% last year.

“There has never been a time like this in history where some of our funds are doing extremely well, while the people of Alaska may not be,” he said. he declares.

Per day

The special sessions themselves come at a price.

Until September 23, the first three special sessions cost $ 1.49 million, according to figures from the Legislative Affairs Agency, the administrative arm of the Legislative Assembly.

This cost will increase as the fourth session takes place and lawmakers continue to submit expense claims for the third session.

Lawmakers who live outside of Juneau can claim $ 293 per day for shelter, food and other costs associated with maintaining a second household.

As of September 23, lawmakers had requested and received $ 217,113 in per diems for the third session. It is on par with the daily allowances of the first two special sessions.

Lawmakers are regularly criticized for demanding per diems. Chenault said the same thing happened when he was in office.

“If I was in Juneau, I will collect the per diems that are owed to me, and I have expenses there that I have to pay,” he said.

As for current legislators, “they have to live with it. They have to live with their constituents. And if the voters in their constituency agree, then apparently that’s OK.

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