Being an Alaska Legislator can be a cruel joke.
Legislative service can indeed be a “cruel joke” because the job description of an Alaska legislator is almost universally misunderstood by candidates, legislators, and voters! We all tend to engage in Alaska’s government presuming the roles, definitions, and perspectives used by our founders. However, the Alaska constitution and subsequent legislation have tweaked some the basic guiding principles. Most seasoned legislators know this, but they seldom explain because there is no easy fix once you are over the shock of winning and adjusting to your new responsibilities… – and, after having sworn to uphold the constitution.
As in all State governments, legislators get sworn in and then must accept or alter their legislative role depending on their party affiliation and ability to influence other legislators. Some newbies anticipate an idyllic consensus on committee chairmanship selection – based on resumes and mutual consensus. In reality, the process is similar to grade school “captains” picking their teams… some are inevitably picked last, and some get assigned meaningless jobs where they will do the least “harm”. Defining and accepting your particular legislative role is a “catch 22” situation with limited and painful options. You must either try to use/expand your authority and influence to make incremental improvements for your constituents, or you can risk time and energy in an attempt to put yourself and friends in control. The latter, if over-played, is political suicide and has the potential of installing the wrong legislators into “senior” positions. Every legislator must find the balance between fighting for influence and fighting for constituents. Incumbents are predictably alert for attempted coups and motivated to squelch them with vigor! …Such is standard fare of achieving a messy consensus in a democratic republic… so far, nothing profound compared to other states.
There are, however, sobering factors very unique to Alaska.
- First, and most importantly, the balance of power of the three branches has been intentionally modified in our Constitution. The intent of the modification was to ensure a more efficient, strong administrative branch – allegedly necessary for governing a vast new frontier with few people. However, the extra strength given the governor indirectly diminishes the authority of the legislature and therefore distances government from We the People. Arguably our laws have come to reflect a bias toward favoring government over protection of Alaskan’s inherent individual rights! The impact becomes apparent to legislators as they work in the legislative process and discover the over-powering “insider” influence of the executive and judicial branches. United, they share common, unhealthy, self-protecting incentives to influence, interpret, and enforce law to favor government. Any seasoned legislator can give examples of laws being twisted away from apparent legislative intent. As a cabal, they influence the legislative process, ultimately writing their own laws (regulations) with shockingly little connection to legislated law. Finally, they arguably control the screening of judges to make a court that is “system friendly”. A review of the fate of any legislation intended to re-balance legislative powers is efficiently squelched.
- The second Alaskan anomaly is the constitutional elimination of the need for legislators to defend tax legislation to pay for governing whims! Our constitution instead takes most (80%) of the people’s resource wealth and deposits it directly into the revenue side of our budget with no further legislation! This creates “pre-tax” government revenue turned out to be huge because of oil sales and allowed us to spend far, far beyond what other state governments have ever spent per capita! No other state removes the restraint on legislative spending to this extent! This year the legislature has stunned us by taking an even larger portion (more than the authorized 80%) of the pre-tax resource wealth! It remains to be seen whether Alaskan voters will tolerate this or not.
- The third anomaly is really a consequence of the first two. It is actually a consequence of having a weak legislative branch. Alaskan legislators are, in effect, forcibly “quarantined” geographically during legislative session to insulate them from the influence of their constituents! Sophisticated lobbyists have a protected “game preserve” where they can “bag” legislative votes for their interests like shooting fish in a barrel! There is nothing I know of preventing the legislature from re-locating itself to create easier access for Alaskans.
The legislative role is rarely, or maybe never, what is expected by incoming legislative newbies! The Alaskan Legislative identity (and therefore the legislative process) has become obscure to voters. Admittedly, part of the ambiguity is because too many Alaskans are seemingly satisfied with the crumbs from big government spending. Until voters demand spending restraint, the legislative role will indeed be a cruel joke…
This was also submitted as an article to The People’s Paper.