Don’t expect legislators to take up election reform or oil taxes if the initiatives are defeated

The House chambers. (Photo by aa440/Flickr Creative Commons)

Time and time again, opponents to this year’s two ballot measures—Ballot Measure 1 to raise oil taxes on large, legacy oil fields and Ballot Measure 2 to implement a slate of election reforms aimed at wrenching control from political parties—have argued that the issues are far too complex for voters to decide and that it should be left to legislators to decide.

“You get a better process if it’s done by the Legislature,” claimed Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy, who as a legislator never passed his own bill despite his membership in the Senate Majority and a seat on the powerful Senate Finance Committee, when asked about the initiatives by Alaska Public Media in mid-October.

This sort of thinking may sound appealing. These are big, meaty decisions that we should get right but it relies on the notion that not only is the Legislature—so influenced by politics, lobbyists and self-interest—best equipped to make such decisions, but it will make one at all.

As someone who’s covered the Alaska Legislature for nearly a decade—during which legislators spent down billions of dollars to delay the hard decisions, all the while painting us into a tighter and tighter corner—that’s laughable.

The Legislature is not quite the grand deliberative body we’d hope it is. Instead, you’re better served to think of it as an obstacle course of party politics, petty squabbles, faux-concerned hand-wringing and self-interested survival. Frequently, the final days of session are spent scraping things together in a mad dash against the clock and even that has become increasingly precarious in recent years.

They have no duty to take up anything beyond the budget, often ignoring the politically uncomfortable issues like taxation or a lasting solution on the dividend. They’ll frequently act in self-interest as we saw with their efforts to knock the 2018 ethics measure off the ballot only to return the next year and repeal most of it.

That’s the reality seen by the editorial board of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, which this weekend endorsed Ballot Measure 1. The view of the paper is that the initiative is part of a larger discussion on the state’s finances and a way for the initiative force an intransigent Legislature to action.

“It’s about the collective failure of the state’s present and past elected officials to ensure that Alaska has a fiscally sound and prosperous future that can endure the ups and downs of oil prices and production,” wrote the editorial board. “Ballot Measure 1 exists because the Legislature and governor failed to act to find new revenue as the price of oil collapsed. Instead, the governor imposed devastating vetoes on the budget, and lawmakers collectively didn’t have the numbers to override him.”

The editorial lays out the precarious fiscal position Alaska is in and that we’re in an all-of-the-above situation when it comes to solutions. It also takes a more pragmatic approach to the disaster oil companies have spent more than $25 million telling voters that the initiative would incur: The initiative can be amended (just not repealed) to alter things down to the tax rate and other measures can be passed.

And that’s the point.

Where opponents of both ballot measures argue as if these laws will stand forever if passed—claiming that the Legislature, alone, knows best—this is precisely the situation that the Alaska Constitution’s initiative process was designed for. It’s a way to force legislators to the table and force action where collectively they have been unable or unwilling to act.

“Voter approval of Measure 1, we hope and expect, will cause all parties back to the bargaining table so that Alaska can end its years of fiscal instability,” writes the News-Miner. “Governors and Legislatures past and present have failed to produce results, however. We’re out of time. A yes vote on Ballot Measure 1 is the means to force some action to stop our fiscal bleeding.”

The reality underlying the line of attack from Dunleavy and other opponents is that falling back on the Legislature is the best way to ensure nothing happens and they can continue to hack away at state services.

The opponents won’t come running with a legislative solution if either measure is dealt a loss. Instead, we’d expect them to point to the results and claim the people have spoken.

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3 Comments on "Don’t expect legislators to take up election reform or oil taxes if the initiatives are defeated"

  1. Thank you for this, Matt.

  2. Thank you for this, Matt.

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