Jan. 14, 2021 – In this recording, Alaska Press Club members heard from Chad Sant, a former educator in the Anchorage School District who taught government, U.S. history, debate and more for nearly three decades.
Sant’s presentation covered the basics of the legislative process and how to use the legislature’s website to gather information about bills.
Each legislature consists of two sessions, lasting for a period of 90 days each in Juneau (although special sessions can be called by the governor or lawmakers). The Alaska Legislature is bicameral, meaning it is made up of two chambers: the House of Representatives and the Senate. The House of Representatives has 40 members who serve two-year terms, and is presided over by the Speaker of the House. The Senate has 20 members who serve four-year terms, and is presided over by the Senate President.
Each member represents one of the 20 senate districts in the state. Each senate district has two corresponding house districts. For example, Senate District A encompasses House District 1 and 2; Senate District B encompasses House District 3 and 4.
Bills — and ultimately laws — all begin as ideas. An idea can come from a legislator, group of legislators, a committee, the governor, a non-professional group, a lobbyist and individual citizens who ultimately take their idea and get the ball rolling.
If a citizen can’t find a legislator to support or sponsor their idea, they can always start a petition. If successful, it becomes a proposition — also known as a ballot measure — and goes before voters.
“There are rules about petitions. Doing it that way, not finding a lawmaker, is a way to get your idea on to a ballot in front of Alaskans,” Sant said during his presentation. “Or, in front of a region of Alaska — sometimes petitions are only about one political unit in Alaska and not a statewide issue.”
All bills must be introduced by a legislator, legislative committee or the governor via the Rules Committee. Not all states allow the governor to introduce bills, but Alaska can.
First, the bill is drafted and printed. This is done by the Legislative Affairs Agency. The bill is then introduced by the sponsor during the floor session of the House or the Senate — depending on which chamber the bill originated in. This is known as the first reading. The bill is then referred to committees.
Each body has 10 standing committees which consider issues within their jurisdiction: education, finance, health and social services, judiciary, labor and commerce, community and regional affairs, resources, rules, transportation and state affairs. All committees have an elected chairperson who is responsible for whether a bill will be considered or tabled. Each committee has an odd number of members presided over by a chairperson. In order to conduct business, half the number of members, plus one, must be present — otherwise known as a quorum.
Once a bill has been referred to committee, a hearing may be held — if it pleases the chair. The sponsor presents the bill to the committee, public testimony is heard and the committee members debate the matter. Then, modification, additions or deletions to the bill may be suggested and adopted (also known as amendments). When formal debate has concluded, members vote to move the bill out of committee, again, if it pleases the chair. The bill moves on to its next committee or referral. After the bill has moved through all of its committees of referral, it is scheduled for floor action.
“This is confusing because some people think all bills have to go through all committees — that’s not true,” Sant said. “Sometimes, they have to go through two, sometimes they have to go through five — depending on the bill and depending on which of those committees might have a vested interest in it.”
Further amendments are added during the second reading. The bill moves onto the third reading — usually the next day the House convenes. Here, it is voted on for final passage — an affirmative vote by a majority of the full body. If the bill travels through the entire process without additional changes, the final version is signed by the Senate President and the Speaker of the House and delivered to the governor.
At this point, the governor may sign the bill into law, allow the bill to become law without their signature or veto the bill. A veto is an official action by the governor which nullifies the action of the legislature. If the bill has not been vetoed, it will become law 90 days later — unless a different effective date is specified within the bill. Alaskan governors may also use the power of the line-item veto — typically relating to budgetary issues.
Now that the bill has become law, it is called an act. The act is given a chapter number and becomes a session law. Session laws are reviewed by the Legislative Affairs Agency and then sent to be published. When published, it is now part of the codified body of laws, enacted by the Legislature and known as the Alaska Statutes.
The legislature convenes at the capitol each year on the third Tuesday in January. The first and second regular sessions are limited in statute to 90 days (AS 24.05.150), but the constitution allows for 121 days (Article 2, Section 8).
Missed Chad’s session? You can watch the full video here.