Have you ever tried to get a bill passed in the state legislature? Or have you ever wondered how the political sausage gets made down in Juneau? Members of the Homer Chamber of Commerce got a crash course this week in the sometimes dirty political process, thanks to a visit from a former state legislator who knows it well.
The legislative process is sometimes known as “the sausage grinder,” a term affectionately used by former state Representative and House Majority Leader Ralph Samuels Tuesday when he gave a presentation on the subject of how a law gets made in Juneau.
Samuels knows the subject intimately. It was interest in one bill in particular – dealing with juveniles who commit crimes – that got him interested in running for public office in the first place. He says that he had little to no interest in politics until 1989, when his brother, Duane, was murdered by a 16-year-old boy attempting to steal his car.
The horrific murder of his brother and the years-long battle to seek justice for the juvenile perpetrator – led Samuels to Juneau, where he fought to develop and pass a juvenile crimes bill. He was eventually successful but not before learning many lessons – some of them the hard way – about how a bill becomes law in the Alaska State Legislature.
The first step, says Samuels, is to produce a draft of your bill. Normally, this can be done by finding a legislator willing to sponsor the bill – it works best if that legislator is from your district – and can get his or her staff to work on the draft.
Samuels stresses that the most important thing in the whole process is establishing relationships, not only with your legislator but with members of their staff.
"Getting to know the staff beforehand (is) hugely important," said Samuels. "If they trust you and they like you, they are more likely to give weight to your issue."
The vast majority of bills that are filed in the legislature every year go nowhere, says Samuels, and very few even get a full up or down vote in the House and Senate. Most of them die a quiet death in committee.
So who’s in charge of assigning bills to committee? That would be the House Speaker – in Alaska, a spot held for the last few years by Nikiski Rep. Mike Chenault.
Samuels says the House Speaker has enormous power to guide a bill toward success or failure and you can often judge how legislation is going to fare by the number of committees it’s assigned to. The more committees, the less chance of success, he says.
And even if a bill makes it all the way through committees and passes a full vote in the House and Senate, it still must face the veto pen of the governor.
"You've seen some governors use it as a tool." said Samuels." The governor of Alaska is the capaitn of the ship of the state. There's no doubt about where the true power lies in the state."
The governor of Alaska has an unusual amount of power compared to governors of other states, says Samuels, not only with line item veto power but with the power to appoint his own attorney general and the power to make dozens of political appointments.
On the positive side, Samuels says that Alaska’s small population means that citizens have access to legislators that people in other, larger states do not enjoy. It’s a rare advantage that he used himself in 1989 when working on his juvenile crimes bill, which did eventually pass.