Will lawmakers end their session on time?

 Capitol Building in Juneau, Alaska
Capitol Building in Juneau, Alaska (KTUU)
Published: Jan. 22, 2018 at 7:06 PM AKST
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Are there seven days in a week, or eight?

The Alaska Supreme Court in 1989 might have said eight. That’s when it held that the standard 120-day limit for a legislative session in the Alaska Constitution was actually 121 days.

The justices said the first day didn’t count.

Now today, based on a 2006 voter initiative, the session is limited to 90 days, and the first day does count. That’s because sponsors of the 2006 initiative — three former legislators — wrote their law with the Supreme Court decision in mind and directed when counting would begin. Adjournment under the 90-day limit would be tax day, April 15.

Those two limits matter because they come into play with new rules for the budget contained in a bill and a pending voter initiative.

Gov. Bill Walker has submitted a bill that would stop legislators from getting paid if they failed to pass a budget by the 90th day of a session. And a pending citizens initiative would stop legislators’ pay if they didn’t pass a budget in 121 days — May 16 this year.

Last year, it took longer than that for the state to get a budget through the Legislature. State government, which begins its fiscal year on July 1, was in danger of shutting down.

Walker, in his State of the State speech last week, said that California was having the same kind of problem until it passed an initiative in 2010 to stop legislators’ pay if a budget was not passed on time. That initiative brought California lawmakers to heel, Walker said.

In his speech, Walker said the Alaska Legislature has been doing less and taking more time to do it.

“Following statehood, the first Alaska Legislature was in session a total of 146 days over the two-year session. During those two years, they organized the new government, passed a budget, created 12 executive departments, the court system, the retirement system, numerous professional licensing boards, and passed 387 bills. This week we began our second year of the 30th legislative session. During the first year, 2017, we were in session 211 days and passed 32 bills.”

Ken Jacobus, the former lawyer for the state’s Republican Party, argued on the losing side of the 1989 case. He called the justices’ decision on 121 days “bizarre.”

The case dated back to the 1986 Legislature, when lawmakers in both houses stopped the clock at 120 days and passed 29 bills before adjourning. A Christian Bible Institute sued, arguing that those bills should be declared void, but the justices said the Legislature acted legally because the session didn’t end until the 121st day.

“I think the decision is wrong,” Jacobus said Monday. “It was a way to protect the bills.”

Jacobus said that lawmakers could actually finish their work in 90 days.

“It seems like they mess around for the first three-quarters of the session and they just rush at the end. It seems crazy. We don’t get a good product in the end.”

The 2006 initiative set the time limit at 90 days. But because it’s a law, and the Legislature makes the laws, it can easily override the limit.