Democrats: Majority is Sidestepping Public Process

Single Committee Referrals Raise Ire of Senate Minority

 

Medium Grind -- News and Analysis

If you’re a legislative nerd in Alaska, and if you’re in the mood for fireworks, you know the House floor is normally more fertile ground than the Senate floor. But Monday the Alaska State Senate put on the best show. Of course following the drama in the Alaska State Legislature is a lot like watching Scooby Doo – the outcome is painfully predictable, but there still may be a few cringes and chuckles along the way.

Monday’s flap was over the introduction and subsequent committee assignments for three bills sponsored by the Senate Finance Committee. It’s way too late for individual legislation to be introduced, with just three weeks to go, but committees can still bring new bills to the fore. That’s one of the great advantages of being in the majority, and especially of being a committee chair. The three bills, SB 207, 208 and 209 if passed would shift the public employee retirement cost burden from the states to local municipalities and entities and would axe the state’s performance scholarship program and the state’s education grants program, using those funds to help cover some of the retirement costs for a few years, allowing municipalities to ease into the new paradigm. The bills each received one committee of referral, to Finance, and that didn’t sit well with the four-person Senate Democratic minority.

The procedure is that a new bill is read into the record by the clerk and then the presiding officer assigns the bill to its committees of referral. Most, but not all, bills receive two or more committee referrals. If a bill has a very narrow focus it might receive a single committee and no Finance referral. If a bill is narrow and specifically fiscal nature it might receive only a Finance referral. In this case the Democrats felt the three bills were too broad in scope and impact to receive only a Finance referral, and that the majority was not respecting the public process simply to speed the bills along with only three weeks left in the regular session.

Each time Sen. Kevin Meyer (R-Anchorage) assigned one of the bills to only Finance, Minority Leader Sen. Berta Gardner (D-Anchorage) rose and cited rule 39-b of the Legislature’s uniform rules. Gardner spoke passionately at times, saying things like, “If a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing right,” and admonishing Meyer for sidestepping the process for the sake of expediency. Such fast tracked legislation, Gardner argued, reduces public input, and it also diminishes the thorough scrutiny major legislation requires.

Various Republican senators stood to justify the action. Sen. Charlie Huggins (R-Wasilla) spoke about the experience of his fellow Education co-chair, citing Sen. Mike Dunleavy’s experience as an educator. Dunleavy also sits on Finance, and Huggins said he was comfortable with the scholarship bill skipping Education because he trusts Dunleavy with his vote.

Sen. Pete Kelly rose to remind the body that the Legislature’s Finance Committees have expanded their roles to cover a broad range of topics, and that they’ve been thorough in doing so. Gardner countered that argument by asking Meyer why not just do away with all the other committees and simply refer everything to Finance? That way, she said, the Legislature could be done with its work in 30 days.

Each time Gardner made a motion to assign each bill to one additional committee of referral the effort was shot down in a 13-4 vote with only the four minority Democrats in favor.

 

What Does it Mean?

Strictly following the rules, Sen. John Coghill (R-North Pole) pointed out that the rule Gardner consistently referenced is actually consistent with Meyer’s committee assignments. Uniform Rule 39-b actually states:

(b) First Reading. The first reading consists of a reading aloud by the clerk or secretary of the following information: the house of origin, the bill number, the sponsor, and the title of the bill, e.g., "In the House, House Bill No. ..., by ...... and ..... ......, A bill for an Act entitled, 'An Act relating to a code of ethics for state employees.'" The bill is then referred by the presiding officer to one or more committees. The house may by a majority vote of the full membership of the house refer the bill to any other standing or special committee.

In an interview Meyer said his decision on this particular suite of bills was based on the budget implications they present.

Meyer added, “To stretch your memory a bit, SB 141 [the bill that created the Tier-4 PERS/Tier-3 TRS change] was introduced in 2005 and was referred to the Finance Committee. SB 125 [the legislation that changed PERS to a cost-sharing system and established the contribution rates of 22 percent for PERS and 12.56 percent for TRS] was introduced in 2007 and referred to Finance. SB 125 did not pass the Legislature until 2008 – so the earlier/later in session argument is a consideration, but much more so, is the implication that the bills have on the operating budget.”

Meyer described the assignment process as a damned if you do/damned if you don’t problem with no perfect solution. He said at one time or another every member of the Senate has taken issue with a bill’s referrals.

The real problem is that there are no hard and fast criteria for committee assignments, and there probably can’t be – there’s always an element of subjectivity, and, like everything else in the Legislature, there is sometimes also a political element. There is no question minority bills tend to receive more committee referrals than majority bills, and that minority bills are heard in those committees much less frequently, almost never passing into law. That was true even when the bi-partisan coalition was ruling in the Senate, and it has always been true. It is also true that as the clock runs out some majority bills get on the fast track, and there’s little the minority can do about it.

Meyer said in this case he’s disturbed by the argument that the bills won’t be properly vetted in Finance. He said the committee is extremely thorough, and that its members have a wide range of experience that will help the committee consider all aspects of the three bills. The proof, of course, will be in the pudding. If Kelly and co-chair Sen. Anna MacKinnon (R-Eagle River) invite testimony from educators on the scholarship bill and from community leaders on the retirement costs bills it will go a long way to alleviate the charge that the public process is being truncated. If the bills move out of Finance with little consideration the minority concerns will be largely vindicated.

One interesting moment occurred on the Senate floor after the committee referral flap was over. Sen. Dennis Egan (D-Juneau) rose and moved that his own PERS/TRS (retirement) bill be waived out of the Community & Regional Affairs Committee and into its next committee of referral – Finance. His bill, SB-88 has languished in C&RA for over a year. The motion failed along the same 13-4 majority/minority lines.

Sen. Bill Wielechowski (D-Anchorage), the Senate minority’s firebrand, stood and delivered a passionate speech saying Egan’s bill covers exactly the same topic the two majority PERS/TRS bills do, and that it should be moved to Finance for the sake of consistency, if nothing else.

The difference, Meyer said later, is that Egan’s bill proposes a structural change to a hybrid, defined benefit/defined contribution system. Such a structural change, Meyer said, requires more consideration than does simply changing who pays the bill under the current system. That may be true, but as mentioned before, as a minority bill SB 88 is not likely to be moved from any committees of referral in any case. Meyer could move the bill directly to the Rules Committee, where bills are scheduled to come to the floor, and there it would die a quiet death.

As to Gardner’s charge that all bills might as well be referred to Finance, Meyer said that actually might not be such a bad idea, given the state’s current fiscal situation, “to make sure that we are not creating additional costs tin the future for government.” Meyer was not suggesting that all bills get only a Finance referral, so Gardner’s rhetorical point went without a response.

Will it Change Outcomes?

Whatever happens in the Senate, the system is set up with checks and balances. The House and Senate are autonomous bodies, and it’s not unusual for them to be at odds and even in conflict. Should the three bills be moved quickly from Senate Finance and moved from the Senate floor, the process begins all over in the House. House Speaker Mike Chenault (R-Nikiski) will assign the bills to House committees. In an interview Chenault said he wasn’t familiar with the bills yet, but that he would make his assignments the same way he always does.

“If [the three bills] do come over we’ll look at them and decide what the content is, and we’ll assign them to either a committee or multiple committees, depending upon what I think they need,” Chenault said. He said if the PERS/TRS bills deal only with fiscal issues he could see a Finance-only referral, but that he wasn’t in a position to make that call yet. He also said, given his limited familiarity with the brand new bills, he might agree that the scholarship bill could benefit from an Education referral, but again, he’d have to be more familiar with the details first. In any case, the bills will have to survive the House, even if the Senate fast tracks them.

If the House makes any changes to the bills and passes them the Senate will either have to concur with the changes, or the legislation will go to joint conference committees. Should they survive that stage they would still require Gov. Bill Walker’s signature to become law. That’s a lot of hurdles to clear with three weeks to go.

The real question is, are the rules being broken? According to the letter of the uniform rule Gardner cited, the presiding officer must assign bills to one or more committees, and as Chenault pointed out a lot of bills get single-committee referrals. The question is, do these bills meet the same criteria other single-committee bills have met? The two retirement bills will have significant impact on communities and other entities, and while the killing of the scholarship and grants programs will temporarily mitigate those impacts the end of those programs will significantly impact students and education in general.

In order to demonstrate that the single-committee referrals for these three bills does not diminish the public process the Finance Committee will have to vet the bills thoroughly, and public participation will have to be honored in full. Short of that it will rest on Chenault’s shoulders to ensure the bills are completely vetted.

PUBLISHER’S NOTE: As has increasingly become the case with minority Democratic legislators, Minority Leader Gardner did not respond to several requests for comment. Grinder News has repeatedly reached out to minority Democrats, but many of them refuse to comment. It is difficult to imagine what is gained when elected officials refuse to present their views and opinions. Grinder News has been equally fair, and equally tough on all individual members of the Legislature. To their credit, Majority Republicans have been open and generous with their time, even after being hacked in an opinion or satire piece. After reading this piece, Rep. Les Gara (D-Anchorage) texted Grinder News with some frustrations, mostly over a PhotoShopped image. Grinder offered Gara the opportunity to conduct an interview and offered to publish the interview in its entirety. He declined. Grinder wants to present all views, but if minority Democrats refuse to conduct interviews we are left to use only what they put on the record.