State of the Race (Oct. 11): Four initiatives move ahead

In the last week, we’ve seen four ballot initiative take steps toward appearing on the 2018 ballot. They’re all still 32,000 signatures, a few legal challenges and a legislative session from reaching the 2018 ballot, but it’s time to take stock in where each stands in The Midnight Sun’s State of the Race update.

We’ll be doing occasional check-ins on the various races and issues appearing on the 2018 ballot as there are major shifts and developments in interesting and key races on the 2018 ballot.


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

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.

UPDATED! Current status: This initiative has faced the most ups and downs of any initiative so far. The revised initiative was rejected by Lt. Gov. Mallott for failing to meet the constitutional requirements for petitions. The Department of Law argued the initiative essentially boxed the Legislature out of decisions related to mining and other resource development when it comes to fish habitat. Though the initiative sought to give the Legislature say in deciding the levels and mitigation efforts required for development, the state argued it was unrealistic they ever would (given the Legislature’s track record on the budget that’s a fair assumption), but a Superior Court judge disagreed. In a ruling on Monday, the judge overturned Mallott’s decision finding that just because the Legislature isn’t likely to give its input doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have the option to. Overall, the judge summarized the dispute as whether or not the petition was a constitutional regulation of water quality or an unconstitutional preferential allocation of state resources. He chose the former. The state can still appeal the issue so it’s likely to be in limbo for the next few weeks.

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, which backs anti-corruption measures in local and statewide races.

UPDATED! Current status: The initiative was approved on Friday, and faced the fewest legal questions of any initiative. While the other three initiatives ran up against the Alaska Constitution’s prohibition on initiatives that spend or allocate resources, the initiative passed the state’s legal analysis with flying colors. The group enjoyed a round of media attention and signature gathering can now get underway.

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.

UPDATED! Current status: The initiative passed the Department of Law’s legal test, though it and the Healthcare for Alaskans Act of 2018, both faced additional scrutiny over whether they spent or allocated state resources. Though the initiative sets greater eligibility standards for the state-backed health care programs, the Department of Law ruled they didn’t violate the constitution because it didn’t require the Legislature to sign off on the funding. It’s the whole “subject to appropriation” issue that the Legislature has used to get out of contracts and obligations in the past. With the approval of Lt. Gov. Mallott, both initiatives can begin gathering signatures.

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.

UPDATED! Current status: See above.


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).

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.

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