Senators never liked Rep. Jason Grenn’s House Bill 44 that set its sights on the Legislature’s conflict-of-interest rules, but went ahead earlier this session and greatly expanded the bill. The new version includes a ballot initiative that not only targeted the Legislature’s conflict-of-interest rules, but also legislator per diem, meals bought by lobbyists and foreign influence in state elections.
The Legislature’s legal experts believe if the altered bill makes it into law that it would likely knock that ballot initiative–known as the Government Accountability Act–off this year’s ballot. Both Grenn and The Midnight Sun Publisher Jim Lottsfeldt are involved with the initiative.
The Alaska Constitution gives the Legislature the power to knock certified voter initiatives off the ballot by passing materially similar legislation. The changes made to House Bill 44 don’t exactly replicate the initiative, but the Legislature’s attorneys say it comes close enough. The major difference between the two methods, though, is initiatives are also protected from repeal by the Legislature for two years.
With the Legislature all but certain to hit a deadline that will push initiatives from the primary election to the high-stakes general election, it’s a maneuver that could spare legislators from heightened attention on their history of per diem payments and voting record.
There’s just one problem.
That bill hit a snag on Monday, when Senate Judiciary Committee chair Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, outlined his broad opposition to both House Bill 44 and the initiative, signalling that he could be reluctant to let the bill move ahead.
“I’m neither a fan of the initiative or this bill,” Coghill said.
He explained that he opposed the idea of cutting off legislative per diem because he said it’s not entirely up to legislators when a budget is passed and said he was concerned about the constitutional problems of limiting political speech. He also took issue with the changes to lobbyist rules because he said it unfairly suggested lobbyists hold massive improper sway over legislators.
Coghill, as the chair of the committee, has the power to prevent the bill from advancing through normal legislative procedure.
But, as we learned recently, normal legislative procedure might not amount to much.
Coghill attempted to bottle up three pieces of legislation this session–a resolution asking voters to put the PFD in the constitution, a repeal of criminal justice reform and a bill renaming part of the Alaska Safe Children’s Act–only to be overridden by his committee through a parliamentary maneuver. The Senate leadership also pulled Senate Bill 152, which rolls back parts of the criminal justice reform bill Coghill helped author, from the committee.
It’s possible the same efforts could come to bear on House Bill 44, though the bill still has a referral to the Senate Finance Committee and will need to return to the House for concurrence and a title change (which requires a 2/3 vote of the Senate and House, more votes than the bill had when it passed the House last year).
Why it matters
There’s plenty of competing interests with this.
On one hand, the Senate’s changes to the bill could ensure that the Government Accountability Act essentially becomes law (though without the two-year protection from repeal). On the other, it removes the Government Accountability Act from the calculus of this year’s elections, allowing legislators to avoid extra attention to their behavior when it comes to per diem and conflicts of interest in recent years.
The Legislature has typically stayed away from efforts to preempt ballot initiatives, and such efforts have typically been met with suspicion. Backers of the 2014 initiative to hike the minimum wage stiffly opposed House Republicans’ efforts to preempt the initiative with their own minimum wage hike. Even though the Republicans offered a higher raise than the initiative, there was real fear that the Republicans might return the following year and simply undo the measure (which happened the last time there was a minimum wage measure on the ballot).
The Legislature is quickly approaching the deadline that would push the Government Accountability Act initiative and the Stand for Salmon initiative from the primary ballot to the general election ballot. The initiatives are set to appear on the first statewide election 120 days after the Legislature adjourns from the regular session. That means if the Legislature adjourns on Monday or after, the initiatives will appear on the general election ballot.
Alaska Government Accountability Act explained
The initiative proposes do the following:
- No per diem if the operating budget isn’t passed by the end of the 121-day session.
- Lobbyists would be barred from buying legislators meals.
- Enacts tougher conflict-of-interest rules on the Legislature, which are similar to provisions that were in House Bill 44.
- Foreign-owned companies would be barred from any financial involvement in Alaska’s candidate elections.