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October 25, 2021


Alaska Civics 101 With Rep. Berta Gardner.

I made  it a point to roust myself this morning to go hear Representative Berta Gardner give a talk at the Unitarian Universalist Forum.  She was there to talk about the legislature, and her talk was fascinating and very well received.  The thing I liked about it was that she was able to explain, in layman’s terms, what actually goes on in the “legislative bubble” that is Juneau, from a Democratic perspective.  She is charming, and intelligent, and speaks from the heart.  She talked from a place of both idealism and pragmatism, the two “isms” that often enter into an uneasy dance in the halls of the capitol.  Here’s the first part of what she had to say.   I’ll post more later on her thoughts about the Senate, the Governor, the gas line, and more.

Those of you who remember Schoolhouse Rock, and the song “I’m Just a Bill,”  will never think about it in the same way again.  A few more verses are in order to get it up to date.



When a bill is introduced, it’s assigned to a bunch of different committees, and sometimes if it’s a “greased bill,” it will go only to one committee because someone wants it to pass fast. And if people don’t like it, they’ll give it like five committee assignments, and it’s sort of a kiss of death.  But not all bills that are introduced are really even intended to go anywhere.  Sometimes they’re introduced for a media splash, or a constituent or somebody might ask you to introduce a bill that you don’t even necessarily agree with. Some people will go ahead and do that, and then never even ask for a hearing, and they can just let it die a natural death. 

Some bills are introduced to make a statement, and to start a discussion and get people talking about an issue.  And some bills, frankly, are such junk that they shouldn’t ever see the light of day, and that happens a lot.  And then there are a lot of good bills that can’t ever get a hearing either.

The way the legislature works is that every committee is dominated by the majority.  There is proportional representation.  The Republicans are in the majority (in the House) and the Democrats are in the minority, except that there are four Democrats who organize with the Republicans.  Richard Foster has done that his entire career, and there are three others who joined them this year, and it was a heartbreaker for us.  It meant we lost seats as Democrats in the minority, and it was personally very very distressing, and I don’t want to talk about that too much except to say I think  in some ways our caucus, the Democratic caucus, didn’t ever completely recover from that, and it still weighs heavily on all of us, even today.  It felt like betrayal, and short-term gain, and there’s a lot of hard feelings and sadness about it.  But, that being the case…we’ll say the Democrats are the minority, the Republicans are the majority in the House.

Every committee, of course, will have more Republicans, and the Chair will always be in the majority.  And the Chair alone determines what bills will be heard, and the Chair can simply say, “I’m never going to hear this bill.”  Sometimes the Chair will bring up a bill and say, “This bill’s not moving from committee, but we’ll give it a hearing,” and at least you get some opportunity to discuss the content.

So, it makes it really really difficult to actually get legislation through, particularly if you’re in the minority.  So, what people do is try to find a “majority sponsor” for a bill.  So, if you really care about an issue and you want to have it happen, and you don’t care if your name is on it or not, you give it to somebody else.  Sometimes people do all the work [and say] “Here’s the packet, here are the resources, here’s everything you need, if you’ll just introduce it.”

If you look through legislation, you’ll see that there’s a lot of cases where there’s a “majority prime sponsor” and a “minority co-prime.”  That’s almost code…not entirely…but most of the time that means it’s the minority member’s bill, and maybe they did all the work for it, and the majority member kind of has their name on it and gets hearings and gets it through.  That happens.

Another thing that happens is that people just plain steal bills.  And that’s happened to me, it’s happened to everybody, where I’d introduce a bill on the House side and have a bill packet with all the information, ask for a committee assignment, and somebody on the Senate side could take the entire bill, and the bill packet, and copy it all, with no attribution, introduce it on the Senate side, and actually get it through. (…)  Do I care about that?  The fact is that it’s irksome, but the fact is it’s unlikely that I would have succeeded in getting it all the way through, and it is the law, and it is what the Municipality wanted, and something I supported, and that’s the way it is, and I can still say, “Well, I wrote this bill,” which is true.

The other thing that happens is that if a Democrat or a minority member introduces really good legislation and the majority won’t let it out, for whatever reason, then the following year a majority member will introduce the same bill. And that’s happened to all of us, and you say, “Oh, I’ll co-sponsor it!  I’ll work with you on that,” and you try to get it through that way, and it’s fine.  It’s still your bill and it’s still something you believed in, and it happened, and that’s the way it is.  But by and large, as a minority member it’s really difficult to get your own things through by yourself.

It’s not all terrible, though, because it forces people to work together, and to build alliances, and make things happen.  So, that’s important.  What is the power of the minority?   I think the minority’s role is to say, “The Emperor has no clothes.”  And, you know, that’s really important.  And the way I’ve been thinking about it this year… because my first session I was kind of in “consideration mode.”  Listen. Learn.  My second session I started branching out more and got incredibly frustrated.  This session, partly because of the three democrats leaving, I was just thinking I’m going to be aggressive.  I’m going to be out swingin’.  I’m gonna call ’em on their bull. (laughs)  Nothing’s going unchallenged…if it’s our guys, or their guys, I don’t care.  And I tried to really do that… sometimes maybe too much.




17 Responses to “Alaska Civics 101 With Rep. Berta Gardner.”
  1. Bravo, keep swinging and maybe even too much, as long as your swinging! (It don´t mean a thing if it ain´t got that swing!)

  2. North_of_the_Range says:

    #5 Spaz: I can understand the members of a committee being relational to the proportions of each political party. But it seems to me that the collective Chairs of the committees should observe the same proportion. That would force the majority party to have to pick their battles and also allow the minority party to wield a little more power and have more opportunity to get their respective bills made into law.

    I love how that idea would keep the legislative process more true to the voters’ will by not marginalizing duly elected representatives. Why should the districts who elected party X be doomed to the margins by the districts who elected party Y?

    The power of majorities and Chairmen has always bothered me, although I know it’s how the game is played. It’s unfair and unrepresentative at its core, and it contributes to the public dissatisfaction with the legislative process at state and national levels. It’s not just that people are frustrated because their individual wishes or ideologies don’t get fulfilled by legislation. It’s that we don’t feel fully and fairly represented, on many levels.

  3. InJuneau says:

    BigSlick–three rural ones; the ones from Bethel, Kotzebue, and Dillingham, along with the one from Nome who always caucuses with whichever party is in the majority.

  4. jojobo1 says:

    Dr Chill rewad your link from 6 Boy some of those Palin supporters forget the names and things she did during the campaign don’t they? At least from the post I read.seems she said worse than Letterman. did. Seems like a real mess in NY

  5. deist says:

    I actually got to write a bill once, about 25 years ago. A legislator told Legislative Affairs to contact me and I told them what to put in the bill. Of course my legislator had final say.

    The bill didn’t pass but its existence caused the competing bill to die too and that was good because actually what we wanted was for the affected statutes to remain unchanged.

    Berta is probably my favorite legislator. There are other good ones, but she’s a realist, she’s smart, and she’s never driven by temperament. I often contrast Berta with Palin– Palin is the opposite of Berta Gardner.

  6. Alaska Pi says:

    This is great! Not only clear and full of info but clears up some questions I’ve had over the years when trying to follow a bill through the process. Thanks AKM for posting Rep Gardner’s remarks/talk.

  7. Rob in Ca says:

    Fascinating stuff. I never learned that in government class! Hope to hear more soon…

  8. Martha Unalaska Yard Sign says:

    This gives me a headache! Yet I appreciate the information – I think. Ouch.

  9. CO almost native says:

    Colorado has the Democrats in a majority in the Legislature, a Democratic governor- and the Republican conservative curmudgeons squawking “taxes! taxes!” and gumming up the works.

    Sort of like Alaska-

  10. BigSlick says:

    So who are the defectors Berta talked about?

  11. DrChill says:

    By way of comparison, Here in NY – They fight bicker and never pass a budget on time.

    Last week we saw a drama on a par with Ceaser getting a knife in the back.

    Heads spun as the GOP as a minority got 2 democrats to ‘defect’. They created a total turn-around in the legislative power. The coup has overthrown the Democratic rule and has declared the GOP the majority; at least for a week or so. The courts may rule that the coup is not legal.
    If you read the following and still scratch your head and say “WTF how did THAT happen!?
    Join the club. You’re in good company.

  12. Spaz says:

    Interesting. I assume (I know…) that this is how it happens in Alaska, per their own constitution, and not necessarily (but very likely) in other states?

    It seems to me that it allows ALL legislative power to rest in the hands of the majority in any particular house of the legislature. I can understand the members of a committee being relational to the proportions of each political party. But it seems to me that the collective Chairs of the committees should observe the same proportion. That would force the majority party to have to pick their battles and also allow the minority party to wield a little more power and have more opportunity to get their respective bills made into law.

    I think that this would further force the parties to work together. Yes, it’s all politics, and we’d see plenty of ‘Scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours’ going on, but I’ve no doubt that happens already. I think this method would force more cooperation than most legislatures likely see right now.

  13. Isabella says:

    The introduction of a bill sounds like revisiting high school gossip and cliques.

  14. mlaiuppa says:

    So what Gardner is saying is that when Palin plagiarized Gingrich she was only practicing for when she’s a legislator?

  15. Gramiam says:

    Very interesting and refreshing post, AKM. Wish we had a few Bertas here in Arizona.

  16. pvazwindy says:

    So thats how it works

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