A proposed voter initiative for 2018 would cut off legislators’ per diem payments if they don’t pass a budget by the end of the regular session. Legislators collected nearly $400,000 in special session per diem payments this year before passing a budget just days before their inaction would have forced a government shutdown.
The proposed initiative is known as the “Alaska Government Accountability Act” and was teased earlier this year with the formation of a group known as Alaskans for Integrity, which is co-chaired by two current legislators and a Republican campaigner. The act would also ban lobbyist gifts to legislators and reinforce conflict of interest rules surrounding votes and foreign influence.
The co-chairs of Alaskans for Integrity are independent Rep. Jason Grenn, Republican citizen Bonnie Jack and Democratic Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins. Grenn and Kreiss-Tomkins both declined to collect per diem during this year’s special sessions.
The main pieces of the proposed initiative are as follows:
- Legislators would no longer be able to claim per diem payments—$295 per day—if the operating budget is not passed by the end of the regular session. On average, legislators collected about $37,000 in per diem during the regular and special sessions this year according to the most recently reported numbers.
- Lobbyists will no longer be able to buy legislators dinner. Such dinners have been held prior to important votes—such as a $100 dinner before a vote on Anchorage legislative offices and a $78 dinner before a vote on an oil tax bill.
- Enact stronger conflict of interest rules for voting in the legislature. It would broaden what counts as a conflict and make it more difficult to override declared conflicts of interest. Currently, requests to be excused from voting because of a conflict of interest are easily overridden with an objection that isn’t officially recorded. The new changes are similar to Grenn’s House Bill 44 and would require the objection to be recorded and then voted on by a majority of each chamber.
- Foreign-owned companies would no longer be able to financially support Alaska’s candidate elections. Legislators could also no longer bill the state for foreign travel “unless they can show how the trip benefits Alaskans and serves a legislative purpose.”
The owner of The Midnight Sun, Jim Lottsfeldt, is involved with the petition and was listed as the contact on the news release announcing the petition. Lottsfeldt is also involved with two other initiatives that would put Medicaid expansion and key pieces of Obamacare into state law.
The group will need to gather about 30,000 signatures to satisfy the initiative process, which requires backers gather enough signatures to equal 10 percent of the turnout in the last general election.
Per diem problems
Legislative per diem payments in special session garnered plenty of headlines as legislators stayed in session for a historically long period of time. With the regular session at the 121 days set by the constitution and two special sessions, the time in session reached 180 days before legislators finally gaveled out in mid July.
Grenn, in an interview with The Midnight Sun, said he felt the initiative was important because it builds trust with constituents, something he says is particularly important at a time when the Legislature is attempting to address the budget deficit.
“To me it’s all about building trust with my constituents and all of Alaska, which then leads to better governance,” he said. “When I went door-to-door last year, I often heard about per diem and the long special sessions and the frustration surrounding those issues. That’s why I didn’t take per diem after day 120. That’s why I introduced the conflict of interest bill. I believe all of should hold our elected leaders to a higher standard ethically. I’m asking the public to be OK with big, new ideas like revenue measures and PFD restructuring.”
The group has so far received nearly $26,000 from a national political group called Represent.us, a national group that focuses on anti-corruption measures on local and statewide levels. Its funding levels are disclosed on its website: https://represent.us/donor-list/.