This spring, more than one-third of Alaska’s current legislators announced they will not seek reelection. That’s a high number by any standard, even after accounting for retirements and redistricting. Let’s take a closer look at some of the main drivers for this massive opting-out by Alaska’s legislators.
- 90- or 120-day sessions? Don’t count on it
It used to be that legislators could pretty much count on living in Juneau for 90 to 120 days with the occasional special session that might extend for a week to ten days. In recent years, that rule has gone the way of the dinosaur. This year’s session wrapped up close to on time, but recent years saw special sessions drag well into the summer months. For lawmakers trying to manage their day jobs or family obligations, this reality made continued service problematic.
- Relatively speaking, the pay is not great
This is an unpopular view, but except for a small handful of legislators who likely will never do better than a legislative paycheck, most of them could earn substantially more money doing something else.
Plus, relocating to Juneau twice a year is expensive, not to mention a hassle. Despite what the public thinks, few legislators take the job for the money. Influence, sure. Money, no.
- Unrelenting social media
We expect our elected leaders to maintain a robust presence on social media. Given that social media is essentially the modern town square, legislators must accept whatever criticism and abuse (and some comments they receive are abusive) with few exceptions. It comes with the territory, and most politicians have thick skin. But there’s no doubt this routine gets old, even creepy at times.
- The work is hard
Back when the State was flush with seemingly endless amounts of cash, legislators were able to spend their way to compromise, ensuring every district received its piece of the proverbial pie. Road and drainage projects, health centers, runways, docks, and other capital projects were divvied up to allow every lawmaker to “bring home the bacon” for their constituents; a ribbon-cutting could resolve a lot of differences.
Nowadays, and especially during the past few years when the state found itself in tough financial times, that practice became impossible. Instead, hard choices had to be made about spending and revenues. This highlighted the now very real, very visible philosophical differences between legislators, and the work became tedious and hard.
In other words, no one has been having fun for years now. It may sound trivial, but how many people could work for years in an environment that not only wasn’t fun, but was dysfunctional? Not many.
- Toxic national partisanship seeps into the capitol
We like to think we’re different in Alaska, but, unfortunately, the same political acrimony that permeates our national politics is also present within the halls of Juneau. That’s not to say politics are new in our state capitol — hardly. But some of the mean-spiritedness and personal attacks are new. And that makes Juneau a hard place to tolerate, much less get anything done.
- Turnover and lack of experienced staff
Turnover among legislators in recent years was already high, meaning more than a few greenhorn lawmakers were learning the ropes during any given session. But the other complicating factor is the departure of skilled legislative staff.
For many years, longtime staff ensured the legislature ran like a well-oiled machine. With so many confusing and arcane procedural rules to follow, a savvy staffer is worth his/her weight in gold. Like many legislators, however, veteran staff grew weary of the endless sessions and toxicity within the capital building and decided to move on.
Unfortunately, this creates a vicious cycle wherein inexperienced legislators and staff try to figure out the process as they go, resulting in an inefficient process that leads to mistakes and delays. This reality also makes Juneau a less appealing place to work for legislators, who know that without talented staff, their jobs become much harder.
Whatever the case may be, the fact remains that the 33rd Alaska State Legislature will feature many new faces, many of whom are new to state government. It will be incumbent upon veteran lawmakers and staff to show them the ropes, and for advocacy organizations to inform them about the hows and whys of their respective legislative priorities.