State of the race (Aug. 29): The ballot initiatives

The Midnight Sun is launching occasional check-ins on the various races and issues appearing on the 2018 ballot. After the news yesterday, we’re starting first with the ballot initiatives, but in the coming days we’ll cover the governor’s race, state races and the congressional race.

A few things to keep in mind with initiatives

Ballot initiatives are set to go on the first statewide election occurring 120 days after the Legislature adjourns from regular session. If legislators adjourn on time—April 15, 2018—these initiatives will appear on the primary ballot. If the legislature adjourns after April 23, 2018 (as it probably will) the initiatives will appear on the general election ballot. If the Legislature somehow stays in regular session after July 9 (impossible, but who knows), they get bumped to 2020.

The Legislature will also get a stab at preempting the initiatives by passing their own legislation. This is an important move because it also does away with the protection initiatives have from repeal or change by the Legislature for two years after its effective date. The Legislature took advantage of this in 2002 when a minimum wage initiative was up for voters. The Legislature passed a bill that had a higher base wage that kicked the initiative off the ballot and then returned the next year to repeal the guts of the bill.

A similar move was feared in 2014 when the Republican-led House majority put forward its own minimum wage legislation in the face of a union-backed one on the ballot.

Currently, every ballot initiative is under legal review by the state. After they’re approved, the groups can begin gathering signatures equal to 10 percent of the turnout in the previous general election, which is about 30,000 signatures.

That said, here’s a list of the initiatives in the works for the 2018 ballot.

NEW! Alaska Government Accountability Act: The latest initiative takes aim at the Legislature’s ethics and pay rules. It would outright ban lobbyists from buying legislators meals, ban foreign entities from getting involved in state candidate races and rewrite the rules for conflict of interest to substantially raise the bar for what can prevent a legislator from voting. The biggest and likely highest profile part of the initiative would cut off legislators’ per diem if they don’t pass a budget by the end of the regular session. If it gets on the ballot, then it’s likely a slam dunk.

Who’s backing it: There’s a bipartisan group supporting the bill that includes Democratic Sitka Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, Independent Anchorage Rep. Jason Grenn and Anchorage Republican campaigner Bonnie Jack. The group is funded by national political interest group Represent.us, which backs anti-corruption measures in local and statewide races.

Current status: The initiative was rolled out Monday and awaits legal review from the lieutenant governor’s office before it can head to the ballot. It has yet to appear on the Division of Elections website.

Quality Health Insurance for Alaskans Act of 2018: This is the first of two health care-related initiatives that have been filed and is the more expansive of the two. This act would enshrine a number of generally popular pieces of Obamacare in state law to safeguard against their repeal. It would allow children up to 26 stay on their parent’s insurance, a requirement that insurers cover preexisting conditions and the 10 essential health benefits such as ambulance rides, prescription medicine, maternity care and mental health care. The initiative would also ban limits on lifetime spending. If those pieces survive whatever congressional repeal effort that materializes, the bill wouldn’t have a material impact on Alaska.

Who’s backing it: A group of doctors that includes Alan Gross of Petersburg, Alec Glass, George Rhyneer and Megan LeMasters Soule of Anchorage. They have the backing of the D.C.-based Fairness Project, a union-backed group that has so far focused on local and statewide minimum wage initiatives. The combined spending of the two health care initiatives is close to $350,000.

Current status: The initiative has been submitted to the state and its review deadline is Oct. 3.

Healthcare for Alaskans Act of 2018: This measure is paired with the Quality Health Insurance act and seeks to enshrine Medicaid expansion in state law. Medicaid expansion was a key provision of Obamacare that provides additional funding for each state to expand eligibility to a greater group of people (in Alaska’s case it was poor adults without children). The issue was a key tentpole for Walker’s 2014 campaign in light of Republican Gov. Sean Parnell’s refusal to back the expansion. The Republican Legislature didn’t make things easy for Walker in 2015, refusing to grant the governor the authority to accept the additional funding. Walker eventually expanded Medicaid with a rarely used state law in a move that survived the inevitable legal challenge from the Legislature.

Since then, the future of Medicaid expansion has remained uncertain and Walker, at times, has seemed to accept the possibility the expansion could go away. He has conceded that it’s likely the state would reverse expansion if the feds yank the funding. This initiative would prevent that for two years.

Who’s backing it: See above.

Current status: The initiative has been submitted to the state and its review deadline is Oct. 2.

An Act providing for the protection of wild salmon and fish and wildlife habitat: The measure seeks to toughen up the state’s permitting process around resource development near fish habitats. An initial version of the initiative sought to ban resource development projects that could cause “substantial damage to anadromous fish habitat,” but didn’t define what substantial damage was. The initiative’s goals were scaled back after the group got a letter from the state that doubted the constitutionality of the measure. An initiative cannot be used “to dedicated revenues, make or repeal appropriations,” which the state argued would be the case if development was banned from certain waters. The new version of the initiative defines “substantial damage” and adds other allowances for the mining industry, such as stream relocation and the storage and dumping of mining waste.

Who’s backing it: The official backers are Cook Inlet commercial setnet fisherman Mike Wood along with Brian Kraft and Gayla Hoseth. The group has received legal advice from the law firm Trustees for Alaska.

Current status: The revised initiative was filed in July and the review deadline is Sept. 12.

Rumored initiatives

At least two additional initiatives have been discussed, but have yet to emerge.

The most talked-about initiative is something that would put the decision to restructure the permanent fund or enshrine the dividend before voters. Neither is possible through the regular initiative process, however, because both would likely violate the constitutional ban on initiatives that dedicate money. A constitutional amendment would be needed here and those need to be put on the ballot by a two-thirds vote of each chamber of the Legislature. It’s politically popular to talk about, but don’t count on it for 2018.

The second initiative is more in the camp of rumor and would deal with oil taxes in some format (likely in a way that spurs massive industry spending to oppose it).

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