Columns 2017

Alaska’s silent legislature

Be quiet. Quieter. No, I mean really, really quiet. Because I’m sure if you get quiet enough you’ll be able to hear the healthy and vigorous debates going on in our state legislature over our fiscal crisis and how to handle it so that we can still pay the light bill.

Hmmm… seems no matter how quiet we get, we hear nothing. But just wait a few months and then hear the sounds of our legislators explaining their need to go into overtime because this is a problem that simply can’t be solved in a week. Listen to them explain they were very busy hanging pictures in their new offices and traveling to very important conferences for the three months of the session. Listen as they try to justify why they have no plan, no agreement and nothing but an even greater fiscal crisis facing us than we had last year.

Yep, our legislators have a very familiar pattern they seem to follow every year. They travel, meet in closed sessions, have coffee, do some woodworking to relieve the stress and then, just as adjournment looms large on the horizon, they find their voices. And those voices inevitably are used to explain to their constituents why they couldn’t get the most important job in front of them done in the time allotted. They will explain that they had a lot on their plates. After all, would we even have a Marmot Day without them? Or an official state fossil?

Yep, they were clearly busy with very important tasks. Plus, at least some legislators have to wait until their bosses tell them what they think and what they need to do before they can tell us. Interestingly, those bosses never suggest that the oil industry tax breaks are a tad generous to companies that make billions in profit off our non-renewable resources while most of Alaska is trying to figure out how to pay for heat next winter.

I simply don’t understand why our legislature is a stealth legislature for most of its session. I don’t understand why the last two weeks of any session finds them in a bloody panic to finish the people’s business as though the deadline had somehow snuck up on them when they weren’t paying attention. I am quite tired of paying for special sessions to deal with issues that should have clearly been their first priority on getting to Juneau. I’m even more tired of paying for those sessions and having them produce no results.

Imagine if you used the legislative work ethic as your work model. You’d procrastinate for most of the life of a project, then tell your boss you don’t have enough time to finish it and will need overtime pay to stay around and maybe, maybe get it completed. Because that is exactly the work ethic legislator seem to bring to Juneau. The difference is that you’d lose your job but they seemingly get re-elected no matter how incompetent or non-productive they are.

I think as Alaskans we have a right to demand that the legislature let us know the progress they are making. I think we have a right to demand open door sessions as they discuss taxes and other financial moves to curb the economic disaster staring us down. I want to know who is defending what tax breaks and why. I want to know how the proposed budget is crafted, not just the end result. I want to know how the sausage is made.

I realize this would be very uncomfortable for some of our legislators who prefer we not know how the sausage is made. They prefer we don’t know the kind of discussions they have that lead to the conclusions they present to us. Could that be because we would be very upset to hear them defending their employer’s large profit last year in the face of the very, very generous tax package they wrote for that employer behind those closed doors?

I’m guessing they would all protest vociferously that they would never do anything to help the company that writes their paychecks over the people who elected them. But if this is so, why is the silence emanating from Juneau so loud? And why, if this process truly is needed to come up with a reasonable plan to get Alaska’s financial footing back, is the public excluded from hearing the discussions?

We have a right to hear those discussions because, believe it or not, while legislators are in Juneau representing us, we should be the only bosses they’re working for.