By RICHARD RICHTMYER
Anchorage Daily News
February 22, 2006
Election officials are checking signatures on a citizens' initiative petition for a 90-day session, and backers expect it to be cleared for the November ballot within the next few weeks.
Proponents of a shorter session are ready to pitch their idea directly to the voters this fall if their colleagues don't pass legislation to make it happen.
Rep. Jay Ramras, a Fairbanks Republican finishing his first term, is sponsoring the initiative.
Regular legislative sessions have been limited to four months since 1984, when Alaska voters amended the state constitution to stop open-ended sessions.
Ramras and other supporters of a shorter session assert that many lawmakers tend to dawdle and the Legislature gets little work done during the first month.
Some skeptical of the idea say shortening the session could weaken the Legislature and give the governor and the courts, as well as lobbyists, more power.
"There are members . . . who think we've done an enormous amount of work in the first month we were here, and others who think we weren't particularly productive," Ramras said. "I happen to be in the latter group. There are so many people who are working four-day weeks."
Sen. Gretchen Guess, an Anchorage Democrat, agrees. She's sponsoring a bill in the Senate that would limit sessions to 90 days.
"At the beginning of the session, things are slower than at the end of session," Guess said. "We believe we could cut out that first quarter and still get our work done."
Legislative sessions currently start on the second Monday of January and run for 121 days. Guess proposes moving the start time to the first Monday in February, which she said gives lawmakers 60 days after the Revenue Department's March income forecast to finish the budget - the same amount of time they now have.
Her bill, SB 9, also would allow committees to work on bills outside of Juneau between sessions and allow members to vote by telephone.
But Guess' bill faces an uncertain future. It has been sitting in the Senate State Affairs Committee without a hearing since early January 2005.
Committee Chairman Sen. Gene Therriault said he is concerned that shortening the amount of time legislators are in Juneau could shift power from the Legislature to the governor by giving lawmakers less opportunity to review budgets and other executive branch proposals.
"Once you give up that power, you never get it back," he said.
Neither the initiative nor the associated legislation would amend the state constitution, which would still allow up to a four-month session. Nor would they hinder the governor's or the Legislature's ability to call a special session if they run out of time with important work left to do, which happens regularly.
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