Legislature(1993 - 1994)
04/16/1994 08:00 AM STA
* first hearing in first committee of referral
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
HJR 53 - UNICAMERAL LEGISLATURE/SESSION LIMIT CHAIRMAN VEZEY opened HJR 53 for discussion. He noted REPRESENTATIVE OLBERG's arrival. (REPRESENTATIVE OLBERG joined the meeting at 8:03 a.m.) Number 022 REPRESENTATIVE MIKE NAVARRE, CO-SPONSOR, addressed HJR 53 for REPRESENTATIVE JOE GREEN, SPONSOR. He said REPRESENTATIVE GREEN was out of town. He stated in reference to the bicameral system, when the United States set up its system, there was a compromise between big and small states over population areas versus geographic areas. The compromise was that each state would get two senators and a number of representatives based on their population. REPRESENTATIVE NAVARRE related to the creation of Alaska's system and how a unicameral system was considered. Being a new state, however, and questioning how they would even fund government, they were afraid they would not be able to justify to Congress a different system than most other states. Therefore, a bicameral system was chosen. Alaska allots geographic representation in the Senate, and population representation in the House. He believed the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1966 that states could not allocate their legislatures on the basis on geographic representation, it had to be one man - one vote. As a result, Alaska now has two bodies that represent exactly the same population basis with half as many people. He felt the checks and balances of this system would develop without question in the unicameral system. REPRESENTATIVE NAVARRE stated the unicameral system would simplify the legislative process, make it more understandable for the public, eliminate duplication, cause less bills to be introduced, reducing research, and enhance accountability of the legislature. He felt under the unicameral system the problem with the concentrated powers of committee chairman and others, could be reweighed. He suggested checks and balances between the committees, rather than between the houses. He expected a different structure of rules to accommodate the different changes. REPRESENTATIVE NAVARRE commented a unicameral system might reduce the influence of lobbyists because the concentrated power of only a few people from both sides would lessen. REPRESENTATIVE NAVARRE stated HJR 53 reduces the number of legislators to 49. He and REPRESENTATIVE GREEN decided because Alaska was the 49th state, 49 legislators would have some significant historical value. HJR 53 would make the change to a unicameral system after the next census. They felt debate would be needed before the change and it would not threaten anyone already in the legislature. REPRESENTATIVE NAVARRE commented even though the two bodies of the bicameral legislature are meant to provide a more thorough review of proposed legislation, in the end, the scrutiny tends to falter. He noted legislation based on strong emotionalism from a certain incident, can be stopped in a bicameral system because of its slow process. Whereas, it might have rushed through a unicameral system without being considered adequately. REPRESENTATIVE NAVARRE referred to Nebraska, the only state with a unicameral system, which through a study, he found they consider their legislature to be the most accountable to the public in the country. REPRESENTATIVE NAVARRE noted a considerable amount of money would be saved because of the reduction in the amount of legislators. He estimated in excess of $2 million a year. Number 220 CHAIRMAN VEZEY asked REPRESENTATIVE NAVARRE to explain the savings. Number 222 REPRESENTATIVE NAVARRE answered $2 million a year based on salaries of 11 less legislators and their respective commensurate staff. Number 227 CHAIRMAN VEZEY commented the average cost of everything involved with a legislator is about $600,000. REPRESENTATIVE NAVARRE replied there would be 11 less legislators. Number 234 REPRESENTATIVE HARLEY OLBERG directed CHAIRMAN VEZEY to page 2 of the fiscal note for a detailed description. He noted it lists 11 less legislators, 22 less staff, travel, contractual supplies, equipment, etc., to comprise the $2 million figure. REPRESENTATIVE OLBERG found it interesting in the historical record, that in 1975 a bill was introduced with 20 co- sponsors that authorized an advisory vote. The bill passed the House within days and was sent to the Senate "where it died in the State Affairs committee." Number 260 CHAIRMAN VEZEY commented he felt the overhead expenses had not been taken into account. He assumed less legislative agency personnel, research or legal, would be needed. He estimated a 20 percent cut of the legislature's current operating budget at $6 million. Number 280 REPRESENTATIVE GARY DAVIS questioned if other states had attempted to convert to the unicameral system. Number 282 REPRESENTATIVE NAVARRE answered he had not studied the material for some time, but he guessed other states consider the change based on frustration with the bicameral system. REPRESENTATIVE NAVARRE mentioned HJR 53 also limits the session to 90 days. They felt this would be adequate. Number 296 CHAIRMAN VEZEY commented 90 days would probably be adequate for a bicameral legislature, too. He felt people want their own personal representative in the legislature. They do not want to share with everyone. He stated if anything were to change in the legislature it would be an increase in the degree of representation. This is offset by the demand for keeping the cost of government down. He estimated approximately 11,000 people per representative, with a switch to the unicameral system. He inquired if there was another rationale for the degree of representation 49 representatives would offer. Number 331 REPRESENTATIVE NAVARRE responded when he had introduced this type of legislation in the past, he had set the number of legislators at 55 so current legislators would not feel threatened. He said 49 was picked because Alaska is the 49th state. He said 49 districts instead of the current 40 districts, would make the districts smaller. Without the duplication, people would actually have more representation. Number 345 CHAIRMAN VEZEY stated the biggest demand for greater representation comes from the bush areas. He gave the example of one district which is almost the size of Texas, with barely 13,000 people in it. Reducing it to 11,000, it would still be "as large as Texas, less the panhandle." He felt the concerns of the rural areas with smaller districts would not be addressed. He inquired if this degree of higher representation is not reasonable to address by the legislature. REPRESENTATIVE NAVARRE replied it might be worthwhile to ask legislative research to gather numbers as to how to address this concern. Where are the population centers and what is the optimal size of representative districts, thereby reducing the size of the rural districts. Number 376 CHAIRMAN VEZEY stated legislative research could not give the answer. The area most extreme are the Interior villages with very low population densities. Coastal communities have a little more concentration. He questioned if the reduction to 11,000 people in a district would be enough of a difference. Number 397 REPRESENTATIVE OLBERG suggested using a pie shape, centering in Anchorage, whereby every district would be pie shaped. This would work if urban and rural had a similar vested interest. CHAIRMAN VEZEY responded that is not allowed under the Alaska Constitution. Number 407 REPRESENTATIVE NAVARRE added the different rural groups all want their own representatives; however, due to federal law another group's influence cannot be reduced or impacted. He suggested there might be a way to determine the interests of the groups, thereby determining optimal size. CHAIRMAN VEZEY stated he did not believe there was a political solution to the problem. As a microcosm, there is tremendous strife and tension between different rural groups. The groups do not want to be dominated by one another. An ethnicity break down would diminish the populations to 4,000-6,000 people. Number 432 REPRESENTATIVE JEANNETTE JAMES commented on HJR 53. She was concerned that even though the unicameral system may alter the public's view of the legislative process, there would still be no way to totally get rid of the politics. The problem lies in the politics. She agreed the unicameral system needs to be studied. She felt there is time for legislators to review material before it goes to the floor; however, a lot of legislation has passed without their sufficient review. She stated if the lobbyists were made less effective, the public would then have to be more vocal. There would be more time spent on teleconferences, thereby slowing down the committee process. There would be benefits with a unicameral system; however, additional changes would have to be made in the processes. Number 460 REPRESENTATIVE NAVARRE agreed. He commented that lobbyists would still have a tremendous amount of influence. The legislature knows that a lot of times the lobbyists have the best information available on the individual issues because they have a vested interest in them. He felt their influence would diminish because they would not have the opportunity, as they do now on both sides, to stop a piece of legislation with a relatively few number of people. The overwhelming majority of the legislative body can be thwarted simply by having the right person in the right place. Number 476 REPRESENTATIVE JAMES stated the lobbyists represent a lot of people who, without lobbyists, would have to fragmentally make their presentation. REPRESENTATIVE NAVARRE commented Gordon Harrison, who researched the unicameral system for him over a period of years, has written a book on the Constitution of the state of Alaska. He noted he was present to testify and would be a valuable resource. Number 489 JEFF LOGAN, STAFF, REPRESENTATIVE JOE GREEN, commented on HJR 53 for the sponsor. He stated REPRESENTATIVE GREEN had a prior engagement out of town which prevented him from being present. He addressed the question about the number of legislators, and stated that REPRESENTATIVE GREEN was flexible and was willing to change it. He agreed HJR 53 was deserving of more research as REPRESENTATIVE JAMES stated. He commented there has been considerable research done on the unicameral system in Alaska over the last 50 years. Number 507 CHAIRMAN VEZEY estimated about 25 percent of Alaska's population is legally classified as a legal minority. He felt the federal government treats Alaska "as a second class state" because of the large population of racial diversity. Alaska's representation or voting laws cannot be changed without approval of the U.S. Justice Department. He assured the committee the change to a unicameral system would be subject to federal challenge. Alaska would have to prove it was not diminishing the representation of its ethnic and racial minorities. Number 518 REPRESENTATIVE NAVARRE responded CHAIRMAN VEZEY may be right. He suspected a legal battle would ensue because the government in the state is done to the purview of the state, under the States' Rights Act. Approval by the Justice Department would be in the apportionment process within the structure, rather than challenging the system. He felt Alaska would have a very strong case. Number 526 REPRESENTATIVE JAMES directed to the point about researching the unicameral system. She noted there may be some legislators well educated in the unicameral system, however, some are not. For the rest of the legislature to "buy in" to the idea and be educated about the unicameral system it would take time. She noted more time than what is left in this session. Number 535 CHAIRMAN VEZEY responded he believed everyone in the House was very much aware of the concept of representation and the duplicity of the bicameral system. He felt the legislature was capable of making a knowledgeable decision on this subject. Number 549 REPRESENTATIVE NAVARRE commented the public is very informed about the unicameral system because all of the local governments (e.g., school boards, etc.,) operate as unicameral systems. Number 555 GORDON HARRISON, DIRECTOR, LEGISLATIVE RESEARCH AGENCY, commented on the HJR 53. He felt the unicameral system would be a sensible change for Alaska. From the public's perspective the process would be less frustrating and easier to understand. The unicameral system would make it more difficult for lobbyists to affect one committee chairman, thereby stopping a bill. MR. HARRISON addressed representation. As strategy and policy, it may be desirable to have 60 members in a unicameral legislature. The senators would therefore not lose their opportunity to serve in the legislature. Dividing the state more with 60 districts would put the representatives closer to their people. He mentioned campaigning would be more manageable for those in rural districts. The numerical representation of various groups would not be affected, thereby not having any more influence. However, their representatives would be closer to them because the huge districts would be divided into smaller districts. He felt rural people should find the unicameral system very appealing. MR. HARRISON stated he believed if 60 people were divided into various committees, more people would have a longer amount of time to focus and work on a bill. Presently, the 20 members of the Senate are sparsely divided among the committees, therefore working quickly from meeting to meeting. A unicameral house would increase the amount of time committed to committee work. MR. HARRISON addressed the checks and balances. The legislative branch is the only branch of government with internal checks and balances within itself. He stated the bicameral system was designed to cripple the legislature. People are suspicious of law making power, and checks and balances enhance the ability to slow down the process. He noted the unicameral system does not eliminate the inherent checks and balances between branches of government, rather the check within the legislative branch. MR. HARRISON noted unicameral systems are throughout municipal government and they do function efficiently. The unicameral system is considered a radical reform because it is not traditional. He stated a unicameral proposal has been before virtually every state. Some of which, he noted, have come very close to being adopted. Only Nebraska succeeded in the depression. He conveyed no one in Nebraska has any regrets about their unicameral system. Number 641 CHAIRMAN VEZEY referred to the history of politics before 1964, and stated the purpose of the reapportionment and bicameral legislature is to prevent, to the greatest extent possible, change. He said Alaska's Senate was set up to be there in perpetuity. No allowance for change in the Alaska Constitution. MR. HARRISON responded those intentions have been radically upset by the reapportionment decisions, for example Baker v. Carr. These decisions required Senate, or upper chambers, to be apportioned on the basis on population rather than geographical area. The initial state Constitution, set up with the Senate representing geographical areas, has been fundamentally changed by outlawing the apportionment of one house on the basis of geography. Number 672 CHAIRMAN VEZEY reiterated the state Constitution states there will be no apportionment changes in the Senate. Changes in the House are only allowed when there is 100 percent disparity in population. He stated "one man - one vote" is accepted quite readily by Alaskans. MR. HARRISON agreed. Number 680 REPRESENTATIVE NAVARRE commented, as an example, the legislature used to have two research agencies and now there is only one. Number 685 REPRESENTATIVE G. DAVIS noted one of his biggest concerns was seeing the duplication of presentations before committees for a few months out of the year. Number 692 REPRESENTATIVE OLBERG mentioned limiting agency lobbying. CHAIRMAN VEZEY responded it is ironic that state law specifically excludes public employees from regulation of lobbying. TAPE 94-48, SIDE B Number 018 REPRESENTATIVE JAMES commented the legislature could demand the finance committee only deal with finance issues instead of rewriting bills. Number 025 REPRESENTATIVE NAVARRE responded often times legislation given to the finance committee has not been sufficiently altered to the state where it is in its final form. Other committees often do not do their work. Number 034 REPRESENTATIVE OLBERG related to Nebraska and how they went to a unicameral legislature in the depression. He felt Alaska had a wonderful opportunity coming. Number 040 MR. HARRISON added the depression was part of the motivation. The state government was broke and the long unproductive sessions had frustrated the people. Number 072 REPRESENTATIVE OLBERG moved to pass HJR 53 from committee with individual recommendations. Number 075 CHAIRMAN VEZEY, hearing no objection, moved HJR 53 from committee with individual recommendations. CHAIRMAN VEZEY called for a recess at 8:25 a.m. The meeting reconvened at 9:03.