The Senate’s solution for a new legislative ethics rule that’s not working as intended is a wholesale repeal of the change, undoing provisions that more clearly defined a legislator’s potential conflict of interest.
Senate Bill 89 was introduced this week by the Senate Rules Committee, chaired by Sen. John Coghill, to address the unintended consequences of a piece of last session’s House Bill 44 that intended to require legislators to declare potential conflicts of interest during the course of official legislative action.
But thanks to an incredibly expansive definition of what constituted “official action,” it’s left legislators in a place where they feel they can’t have meetings with constituents, appointments with personal doctors or even post documents to the Legislature’s website on any matters they may have a potential conflict of interest.
During committees and floor sessions, legislators are able to declare those conflicts but there’s no similar avenue for the required declaration outside of those settings, which is a root of the problem.
The law also expanded the definition of what constitutes a financial conflict of interest, adding a legislator’s immediate family and setting the threshold of income that could constitute a conflict at $10,000 in the preceding 12 months.
The proposal by the Senate would undo all of that.
Coghill framed the issue not only as an impediment to the legislative process but as a matter of free speech.
“We have a duty to protect Alaskans’ fundamental rights and the legislative process,” he said in a prepared statement. “This bill narrowly targets provisions of a law enacted last year that conflicted with the First Amendment and created uncertainty around the legislative process.”
The changes haven’t sat well with former Rep. Jason Grenn, the Anchorage independent who authored the legislation. Earlier in the session, when the issues were first raised, he argued for a more carefully tailored fix that more narrowly defined “official action.”
“I believe the interpretation to be wrong,” he said. “I think if you define what ‘legislative action’ is or what ‘official action’ is and putting better sideboards on that I think that would fix the problem you’re seeing legislators complain about.”
He argued that there are still real conflicts of interest in the Legislature that the public should know about, but that the requirement under House Bill 44 was for them to declare them in committee or on the floor so the public was properly informed before going through the regular process.
After the release of the new bill, Grenn told the Juneau Empire that he thought legislators were taking the easy way out.
“That obviously I think says, ‘We don’t want to put the work in to make the fix, we’ll just go back to the old status quo,’” Grenn said. “The public doesn’t want that, I don’t think the legislators want that. Again, they voted in favor of the bill. They saw some need for this bill to become law.”
The legislation has been given the fast-track treatment with a referral only to the Senate Judiciary Committee. That committee is chaired by Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, who’s been one of the leading critics of the new law, even going as far as handing of crime bills to the Senate State Affairs Committee because some of the provisions may have dealt with patients her husband, a physician, might see.
The legislation has already been scheduled for two hearings next week at 1:30 p.m. on both Monday and Wednesday. A public hearing on the bill is scheduled for Monday’s hearing.