Alaska Legislature breaks record for days in session, with frustration rising to the surface

Alaska Public Media
October 29, 2021
people in wooden desks on the floor of the Alaska House of Representatives
The Alaska House of Representatives meets on the first day of the fourth special session of the year on Monday, Oct. 4, 2021, in the Capitol. The House passed a resolution that would have allowed the Legislature to leave Juneau for up to eight days, but the Senate didn’t consider the measure. (Andrew Kitchenman/KTOO and Alaska Public Media)

The Alaska Legislature set a record on Thursday for the number of days that it’s been in session in a year — 212. But that doesn’t mean lawmakers have been in the Capitol lately. There’s an impasse on what changes should be made to balance the state’s budget in the long term.

Senate President Peter Micciche says he has been away from home so much this year, his  7-year-old daughter Stella looks older.

“She looked different when I got home,” he said. “A 7-year-old changes a lot in seven months. We’ve been gone a long time, and I don’t have a lot to show for it. And I think it’s because we keep trying to grind it out here in Juneau in the Legislature. And that method is not working.”

After the 121 days of the regular session, Gov. Mike Dunleavy has called the Legislature into four special sessions. The Legislature passed the budget in the first 30-day special session in May and June. It came back for the six-day second special session in late June to avoid a partial state government shutdown. It voted to fund a permanent fund dividend in the third special session, which was also 30 days.

The fourth started on Oct. 4 and must end by Tuesday. Altogether, the 212 days in session breaks the previous record of 211 days set in 2017. Lawmakers spent the bulk of their time in Juneau during the regular and first three special sessions, but nearly all have been home during this session.

Micciche, a Soldotna Republican who is in Juneau, said senators needed time away from the Capitol.

“You hear all of these people sort of receding back into those camps, which tells me that this special session drove people apart. Our job as 60 legislators and the governor’s office is to bring those people back together,” he said.

Micciche said he plans to talk to all 20 senators between now and the regular session, which starts on Jan. 18. And his goal is to find enough common ground for legislation that can pass. He said insisting on holding votes for bills that don’t have support is political.

“We can put bills on the floor that don’t have adequate support. And we can watch them flounder,” Micciche said. “And we can let people mark each other on the record. Coming on an election year, that’d be handy: ‘This guy voted no on this thing.’ ‘This guy voted yes on this thing.’ Or, we can work together to actually deliver some results for the people of Alaska.”

Some of the senators in Micciche’s caucus wanted the Legislature to act on the agenda Dunleavy laid out for the session.

Palmer Republican Sen. Shelley Hughes said it’s disturbing that the Legislature is breaking the record for the number of days in session without passing more bills.

“I’m frustrated and I’m embarrassed,” Hughes said. “Had we accomplished what we set out — the task we were handed — which is to settle the fiscal matters and to fix the problem that’s before us, then, it’s like, ‘Whew, that many days, but at least we got the job done.’”

Fellow Republican Sen. Roger Holland of Anchorage shared a similar perspective as Hughes.

Holland has spent 30 years in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserves. And he said he saw the long session as a deployment. But it’s a deployment that ended without a sense of accomplishment.

Both Holland and Hughes recently signed a letter asking for the Senate Finance Committee to take action on Dunleavy’s proposal to pay a second permanent fund dividend of roughly $1,200.

“Sadly, this is just another do-nothing, get-nothing-accomplished, kick-the-can-down-the-road Legislature, and I’m ashamed to be a part of it,” he said. “I’m having great difficulties with remaining in the Senate Majority.”

Anchorage Democratic Rep. Ivy Spohnholz has been active this year, chairing the new House Special Committee on Ways and Means. The committee is considering long-term budget proposals, remaining active during the fourth special session.

Spohnholz said her goal is to lay the groundwork for the regular session.

“It has been a tiring experience,” she said. “We’re supposed to be a citizen Legislature with essentially a 121-day session. And we’re now had four additional months tacked onto that, which has been — yeah, that’s been a challenge.”

Spohnholz said Dunleavy could engage more with lawmakers.

“It’s the governor that’s called all of these special sessions,” she said. “And if the governor wants to get his legislative agenda passed, it behooves him to, you know, participate in the process.”

The cost for holding the ongoing sessions is adding up. The first three special sessions have cost an additional $1.76 million, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Affairs Agency. And the preliminary costs for the fourth special session through Tuesday were another $125,000.

North Pole Republican Rep. Mike Prax said at this point, it will probably take another election before the Legislature acts on a long-term budget plan. He wanted more votes to be held on Dunleavy’s proposals, so voters would know where legislators stand.

Prax decided to stay home for the fourth session, noting that it’s harder for Fairbanks area lawmakers to commute to Juneau than it is for those in Anchorage.

“You can go down there. People are playing that game: They go down there in the morning, and come back in the afternoon,” he said. “But to get back and forth to Fairbanks, it takes two days to be down there.  The flights don’t connect and you can’t get back and forth. It’s a huge waste of time and money.”

Dunleavy said he’s done what he could do.

“The product that’s going to come out of this session is zero,” he said. “Not a thing. And we all know that there are issues that need to be solved. And we provided an opportunity for those issues to be solved.”

Dunleavy said some legislators have asked him to do “everything.”

“Personally, I think the Legislature should start looking at folks that can negotiate solutions to these issues,” he said. “Right now just seems to be a whack-a-mole scenario, where somebody comes up with an idea and somebody says ‘it’s not going to work’ or ‘we need more time.’ Or ‘we’re tired.’ Or ‘we’re waiting for springtime.’ Or something.”

Dunleavy said he won’t call a fifth special session. He said it would be pointless.

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