Special sessions: More likely than not
Special sessions. How “special” are they really?
In most years, the odds of a special session of the Alaska Legislature are pretty good. In the last decade, there have been more than a dozen.
So how much does it cost the state when lawmakers go into those extra legislative innings?
Pam Varni, head of the Legislative Affairs Agency, says the ballpark number is about $30,000 a day, but the daily rate varies depending on the circumstances. In longer sessions, the costs per day are slightly less.
Per diem for lawmakers is included in that daily rate — about $13,000 a day.
If the session is called after the Legislature has adjourned, the state has to spend about $50,000 to bring lawmakers back to Juneau. Aside from travel costs, there’s also the expense of keeping a skeleton crew at the Capitol — the pages and other workers needed to support the Legislature.
Legislative Research Services, a branch of the Legislative Affairs Agency, looked back at special sessions from 2003 to 2012. Most of them were costly for the state.
During his administration, Gov. Frank Murkowski called a slew of special sessions, including three in 2006.
The first was in May 2006. During this 15-day session, lawmakers were asked to look at a wide range of issues, from capital appropriations to changes in the teachers and public employee retirement system. Lawmakers also worked on the Base Student Allocation formula, which determines the amount schools receive per student. This session cost the state about $25,000 a day, for a total of $381,560.
The second 2006 session ran for 30 days. Murkowski brought lawmakers to Juneau to make changes to the Stranded Gas Development Act. This session had a $801,327 price tag, followed immediately by another special session on oil taxes, which cost $774,931.
Gov. Sarah Palin called three special sessions to deal with oil and gas taxes, her Alaska Gasline Inducement Act, as well as pipeline legislation. Each of those sessions ran for 30 days. The average cost per session was about $900,000.
The Legislature can also call special sessions, as they did in 2009 to override Palin’s veto of the Obama administration’s federal energy stimulus funds, which brought millions of dollars to Alaska. This one-day session, held in Anchorage, cost the state more than $76,000.
In 2006, voters cut the length of the session down from 120 days to 90 days. The law went into effect in 2008.
For the most part, the Legislature has managed to conduct its business within the confines of the 90-day time frame, with special sessions called to take up issues that require more intensive focus.
The Legislature’s main constitutional obligation is to pass a budget, which wasn’t finished when the clock ran out on this year’s 90-day session.
So what kept the Legislature from getting its work done this year?
Many longtime legislative observers predicted the session would go into overtime even before it started.
This year is the first, since the 90-day limit was imposed, that the state has faced huge deficits caused by the sudden drop in oil prices — a record $4 billion for the current fiscal year and probably about the same amount for the next year.
From the start, lawmakers were absorbed with the budget, hearing very few bills.
The massive budget cuts that were called for created a lot of debate. From very early in the session, budget subcommittees began meeting on the weekend and during the evening to figure out what to cut.
The passage of the marijuana initiative last fall, which requires a new legal structure to decriminalize it, also ate up a lot of time. There were many days this session in which there were several committee hearings on marijuana going on in just same day.
A new governor and his clashes with the Republican majority also made for a bumpy session.
When Gov. Bill Walker tried to enact Medicaid expansion through the budget, legislative leaders insisted on a bill.
The governor eventually complied. But by the end of session, Majority leaders said they had too many unanswered questions to pass his bill, so the governor will likely call them into special session to continue their work on Medicaid expansion and reform.
The cost of special sessions and the inability of lawmakers to finish on time usually brings public scrutiny, especially in a year of fiscal belt tightening.
Critics point to states with Legislatures that meet every other year, such as Montana, Nevada, North Dakota and Texas — or Hawaii and Florida, which have 60-day sessions.
So why does Alaska need more time than those states?
Unlike most other states, Alaska’s main source of revenue comes from the oil industry, which fluctuates a lot and is difficult to calculate, making budgeting more complicated. Most states rely on income taxes and more predictable revenue streams.
Alaska is also a new state with the bulk of its communities in unorganized boroughs, so the state performs many functions of local government.
Also, the vastness of Alaska’s geography and its scattered population, as well as its extreme climate, adds to the complexity and costs of running state government.
At the beginning of the session, the state’s budget director, Pat Pitney, told lawmakers the state is reaching a point where it must decide what it wants state government to look like and build its budget accordingly. She warned that the governor’s proposed cuts would be felt by the public, but the Legislature went on to make even deeper cuts.
This session, the Legislature has focused mainly on slashing the budget. The revenue side of the equation has had little attention.
Throughout the session, budget experts warned lawmakers repeatedly that even if all state employees were laid off that still wouldn’t close the budget gap.
Next year, unless the price of oil goes up substantially, lawmakers will have to consider ways to raise revenue, which could mean taxes or tapping Permanent Fund earnings.
Those topics generate a lot of debate and will likely require more special sessions — so the Alaska Legislature’s habit of going into overtime is not likely to change any time soon.