House committee backs move to lengthen legislative sessions

JUNEAU -- The push for longer legislative sessions is gaining traction at the Capitol, with a House committee on Tuesday approving a measure to repeal the current 90-day limit.

The bill, which would extend yearly sessions to 120 days beginning next year, follows last week’s advancement of a measure by a Senate panel that would have lawmakers meet for 90 days during odd-numbered years and 120 days during even-numbered years.

The efforts are a response to a 2006 voter initiative that limited sessions to 90 days. The cap took effect with the 2008 Legislature; lawmakers weren’t allowed to tinker with it for at least two years.

During Tuesday’s House State Affairs Committee hearing, Rep. Pete Petersen, D-Anchorage, said he considered it difficult to vote against what the people said they would prefer. But Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, and one of the House bill’s sponsors, said it’s incumbent upon lawmakers to review laws, no matter how they were passed. He said legislators have seen the effects the shortened session has had.

In a survey stemming from a Session Evaluation Task Force, two-thirds of the 30 House members who responded favored 120-day sessions.

Supporters of longer sessions say their schedules are jam-packed, making it tough for them to spend time or meet with constituents or others. There also are concerns that bills are being rushed through and that the Legislature, in going home after three months, is ceding some of its powers to the governor or state agencies.

Rep. Wes Keller, R-Wasilla, said keeping the appropriate balance between the legislative and executive branches is important.

In the last four-plus years since the initiative’s passage, the arguments for a longer session haven’t changed, and neither has the way the Legislature has run, said former state Rep. Jay Ramras, an outspoken supporter of the 90-day session.

If lawmakers approve a longer session, then “shame on them,” he said.

Sen. Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai, who also helped push the initiative, said 90 days is plenty of time. He said the per diem paid to lawmakers includes Saturdays and Sundays. Lawmakers rarely hold hearings on weekends until, sometimes, near the end of session.

“A big part of the legislative body doesn’t work Fridays” even, he said.

But he believes he’s in the minority when it comes to wanting to keep sessions short.

“There are too many people down here who want more and more government, and that’s what a longer session leads to,” he said. “It’s not a conservative approach at all.”

He promised to propose an amendment or two that will grab people’s attention when a bill reaches the Senate floor but he refused to elaborate.

A fiscal note attached to the House bill estimates the cost of meeting for an extra 30 days would be an additional $864,000 per budget year.