What You Need to Know about how the Alaska Legislature Works

BY DONN LISTON (2018 @DonnListon.com)

July  19, 2018 ECHO Magazine

After returning home from working for a legislator during the second half of the 30th Alaska Legislature, I have had some time to think about what happened between January and May of this year–and what readers should know about the process.

Few Alaskans ever really go to Juneau and experience the place first-hand as it is in session. The expense is too great for a casual visit.

Therefore, I endeavor herein to provide an overview of how it works as I would explain it to a class of adult learners such as I taught over 10-1/2 years in Anchorage and the Mat-Su Valley.

Sharpen your pencils if you need to take notes.

I will be non-partisan and instructional so that even a teacher in the Alaska public education system might be able to look with their class at this Alaska phenomenon. For this discussion imagine you are in a sports arena with an overview from the stands, and you also have big screen televisions (360north.org) all around to see what is happening up close in a variety of simultaneous committee venues.

This is the nitty-gritty of how it works.

Voters choose from people who have offered themselves to serve as candidates for house or senate seats in this arena. And, when elected they go to Juneau where there is a system for what they do. To influence that system–beyond just voting–you must understand it.

Click to read about the best thing about Los Anchorage

The last time I worked in the Alaska Legislature was in 1983—the 13th Alaska Legislature. Then, and still, upon arriving at the Capitol, the elected legislators met and decided on where everybody will have offices, what kinds of furniture they will get from supply, how many staff will serve in each office, and other issues related to making each legislator functional. The Legislative Affairs Agency (LAA) is a big machine, which hires all staff, provides basic training, and assures consistency in how the legislature operates from session to session.

Some legislators get to drive the train, some get to shovel coal, and some just get to blow the whistle once in a while. How the legislature organizes itself at the start of each two-part session determines who gets the best offices and the levels of staff to help out. There are rules for everything, and protocols and expectations you might not know about until you do something you weren’t supposed to do.

For background, we all know there are three branches of the government, as established in the Alaska Constitution, built around the twin doctrines of “separation of powers” and “checks and balances.”

The Legislature includes the Senate and the House, with the 20 Senators elected from districts lettered A-T and 40 House members elected two to each Senate District numbered 1-40 (Two House districts within each Senate district). To see all the elected legislators–and even past legislators–go here: http://akleg.gov/index.php

Executive Branch includes the governor, Department Commissioners, and all the general state workforce. The governor proposes a budget which is developed out of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Only the governor knows where all of Alaska’s money is being spent: https://www.omb.alaska.gov/

Judicial Branch includes the court system with four judicial districts having a structure that is centrally administered to assure laws established by the legislature, and enforced by the Executive Branch, are followed according to the constitution on a case-by-case basis.

I have always been particularly enamored by the legislature because this is the body closest to the people. Each representative serves a district established in reapportionment after each 10-year census, representing a geographical area and roughly 1/40th of the population of the state. Alaska’s population of approximately 740,000 people means an elected house member typically represents around 18,500 people; a senator represents twice that number, 37,000 people.

You’ve got to ask: “How could one person represent that many people?”

It begins by getting elected. To represent the majority of people in a house district, candidates must become well known, project their views, and gain support from a majority of voters. The two major parties—Democrats and Republicans—exist to elect candidates who represent their values and aspirations as established in party rules, district conventions, and finally state conventions. These conventions arrive at platforms and statements of intent that their respective candidates are expected to follow. Candidates who run as Democrats or Republicans don’t always adhere strictly to the party platform, but generally, those are the parties who promote candidates elected to go to Juneau to represent their respective districts. The two-party system assures that a representative or senator is chosen by a majority of Alaskans.

The Legislative session is held over two years, so the 30th session began in January of 2017 and ended in May 2018, with a many-months-long break in the middle of that time. By statute, each part of the two-year session is supposed to go no more than 120 days (wink-wink).

From this foundation all the rest of the structure is built: Occasionally “independent” candidates are elected and a Libertarian Party candidate or two have served. Each elected official has the heavy responsibility of representing the views of a majority of residents in the district during the legislative process.

The legislature determines what laws are on the books and who gets what.

Regular sessions of the Alaska Legislature convene each year on the fourth Monday in January. Upon arriving in Juneau for the session, elected members must first organize; Majority Caucus and Minority Caucus are formed. The majority runs the show; the minority gets to challenge and complain and try to get what they aspire to by teaming up with any who will work with them on bills and the budget they want to pass. Everything requires 21 votes in the House, 11 in the Senate.

To pass a bill, it must go through three readings on three separate days. The Order of Business of each floor session is established in the Uniform Rules. The clerk of each body reads the title of each bill to be introduced in First Reading at the beginning of each floor session. The presiding officer then assigns each to committees for consideration, public hearing and change according to the will of the committees. Amendments are made to the text of a bill in Second or Third reading and the bill must pass either the house or senate by a floor vote after debate. If a bill passes one body it must next go to the other body for consideration. If it passes that body without any changes then it goes to the governor, who must sign it within a designated time, let it pass by not taking any action, or veto it. If changes are made to a bill passed by one body those changes require the bill to return to the originating body for concurrence. If the governor vetoes a bill it can be overridden by a two-thirds majority vote to pass it over a governor’s veto.

While this is generally how it works there are exceptions and adaptations in the rules. Also, rules can be changed on a temporary basis.

It may sound complicated but with each legislative floor session, the process gets a rhythm to it. Watching from the public gallery (or by video feed) an observer can see that each bill is introduced matter-of-fact, given committee assignments, and brought back for Second and Third Readings over time.

These are the general dynamics of how the legislature works. My overview here is only introductory.

In sum, each elected representative or senator is vying for passage of legislation that will modify, eliminate or create new laws, AND provide a budget, to protect or otherwise impact Alaskans and maintain State government. Whether the particular law is bad or good for Alaskans sometimes depends upon what happens after it is passed. But the good news is that every vote of every elected legislator is recorded and available for consideration by voters at the next election. To examine the voting record of any Alaska Senator go here: http://akleg.gov/senate.php For any Representative go here: http://akleg.gov/house.php

When you click on the particular legislator you can find all bills they sponsored or co-sponsored, and click on each individual bill to see what it was about.

Informed voters ask candidates for public office about their views on issues of importance and consider the candidate’s credibility. A candidate who says one thing on the campaign trail can be validated by their voting record. Taking a stand on an issue may be easy to do when campaigning for office, but difficult to maintain when a variety of variables are brought into the formula. That is why you must never vote for somebody based on one issue alone. Further, debate in committee and on the floor of the Alaska House or Senate provide a true reading on where elected officials actually stand after campaign rhetoric is over. Bill information and video debates in committee or on the floor of the 30th Legislature can be found here: http://www.akleg.gov/basis/Bill/Passed/30 Or here: 360north.org.

Debate and Decision Making

Article 1, Section 2 of the Alaska Constitution establishes that “All political power is inherent in the people. All government originates with the people, is founded upon their will only, and is instituted solely for the good of the people as a whole.”

Therefore, to conduct the people’s business the assembled legislators must have a structure and rules for debating and formalizing laws and budgets. The houses of the legislature are required to “adopt uniform rules of procedure,” which is one of the first orders of business when the House and Senate organize at the beginning of each two session legislature. By understanding the fact certain rules pertain to whatever is done on the floor of either body, members of the public can better understand and appreciate how laws are arrived at through the process. LAA publishes a booklet listing by name and describing each rule from 1. Organization of the First Session to 55. Interpretation and Implementation of Rules. The booklet describing these rules can be found here: http://akleg.gov/docs/pdf/uniform_rules.pdf

Further, the underlying rules of the Alaska Legislature referred to often, is Mason’s Manual of Legislative Procedures, 2010.

Unstated is the understanding there will be no hitting, kicking or spitting on the floor of the legislature. In fact, going onto the floor of the legislature is a solemn act. Everything begins day one with the Lt. Governor calling each house to order separately and calling the roll of members whose elections have been certified. Instructional note: The Lt. Governor administers elections, appoints notaries public, serves as custodian of the state seal and performs certain ministerial duties related to the promulgation of regulations under the Administrative Procedures Act.

Each house has a presiding officer; Senate President and Speaker of the House. They each call the body to order and run the show. The presiding officer sits at the front of the legislative chamber facing all of the members and the primary aisle from the back to the front of the chamber. When recognized by the presiding officer, members must rise to speak. The Majority Leader sits in the front corner desk facing forward on one side of the aisle nearest the podium. The Minority Leader sits in the corresponding corner desk on the other side of the aisle. Because the presiding officer is selected by a majority of members, the Majority Leader is most active in routine procedures to facilitate efficient processing of the people’s business, jumping up and sitting down frequently, to address the speaker.

Besides determining which committees each newly introduced bill will be referred to in First Reading, each presiding officer conducts and manages orderly debate on the floor through the entire process. In Second Reading the bill and committee reports are presented so the bill can be amended on the floor and may move to Third Reading. This is the point where placement on the floor by the Rules Committee determines calendar assignment for final debate and consideration for passage of any bill. Chances for a bill to pass through the legislature are sometimes apparent at First Reading according to the number of committees it must go through. If the presiding officer makes a ruling on anything during debate–that any member objects to–it can be voted on and either allowed or discarded by majority rule.

Under Rule 20, Standing Committees, each house of the Alaska Legislature has the following committees: Education, Finance, Health and Social Services, Judiciary, Labor and Commerce, Community and Regional Affairs, Resources, Rules, State Affairs and Transportation.

Committee chairs can form subcommittees if needed to deal with specific issues. Committee meetings can be very informative and one I particularly remember from the last session was when HB 75 “Gun Violence Protection Orders” came before the Judiciary Committee. During that meeting, the originator of that bill, Geran Tarr from District 19 (East Anchorage) explained her bill and committee members questioned people who gave testimony on it. https://www.360north.org/gavel/video/?clientID=2147483647&eventID=2018021380

This bill did not pass the Legislature, but it went through some major changes and might have passed with more support from the Majority Caucus.

Rule 24 establishes Committee Referral and action. Committees must act on all bills referred to each and report actions and recommendations to the house as soon as practicable. During this year’s Legislative Skits the House Judiciary Committee was deemed to be the most entertaining

Rule 27 provides for motions to be presented on the floor of either house and procedures for changing bills or calling for action by the body. Bills can be killed at any point of this process, held indefinitely in committee or changed dramatically from their original form, with some considerations required in the rules.

Passing the Budget is a Big Deal!

Under the Alaska Constitution appropriation bills must be confined to appropriations to prevent substantive law from being enacted with a spending bill. The problem is the state budget is so complicated that only experts know what is in it and where money is hidden. Caucuses sometimes require that all members vote the same way on the budget.

OMB works for the Governor and the LAA Legislative Finance Division works for legislators and staff. Leg Finance provides non-partisan budget and revenue analysis. Bills with “fiscal notes” are monitored by this division to provide insight into how much great ideas will cost. This agency also can help determine the impact of cutting certain areas of the budget. To learn more details about Alaska’s budget go here: http://www.legfin.akleg.gov/

Each agency of state government has a person, usually in the Commissioner’s Office, who is the direct contact for any questions or concerns of legislators or staff, with specialists for special areas of concern like Capital Budget Coordinator and Fund Tracking. They know what information is worth and who they prefer to have it. Constituent requests for information can result in questions to these bureaucrats.

All of these bureaucrats reside primarily in Juneau. All have a vested interest in knowing more than any legislator can about the inner workings of state government. To change that dynamic more Alaskans must become familiar with how our state budget is developed each year. Everything else going on—the theater, the ceremony, the minutia of legislative procedures and intrigue—are all subordinate to how elected officials decide how our resource wealth will be invested for a better future for all.

Do you need any more reasons for being an informed voter?

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