The Alaska Legislature has likely removed a ballot measure from this fall’s statewide election.
In a 39-1 vote Friday night, the Alaska House of Representatives approved changes to House Bill 44 that make that measure “substantially similar” to the proposed Alaska Government Accountability Act ballot measure.
That measure and HB 44 propose new restrictions on legislators, their ability to accept gifts and the per-diem expense payments they receive while working.
If signed into law by Gov. Bill Walker, HB 44 will prohibit lawmakers from accepting per diem after Day 121 of the legislative session if a budget has not been approved. Lawmakers will be required to disclose financial conflicts of interest (either their own conflicts or those of immediate family members) in committee, not just on the floor. Lobbyists will be further restricted from providing meals and drinks to lawmakers.
Under the Alaska Constitution, a ballot measure may be removed from the election if the Legislature passes a bill that is “substantially the same” as the measure.
In the Senate, HB 44 was amended by Sen. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, to include the ballot measure’s language. The most significant difference is how the bill addresses restrictions on campaign contributions from foreign corporations. Some changes were made after lawyers raised concerns with the original language.
A legislative lawyer opined in March that the new version of HB 44 would likely meet the “substantially the same” standard.
Rep. Jason Grenn, I-Anchorage and a sponsor of both HB 44 and the ballot measure, said he is “really happy for Alaska” with the passage of the bill.
“I’m thrilled to see the Legislature take action on this suite of good governance reforms,” said Rep. Jonathon Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka and a fellow sponsor. “While this is a huge improvement over the status quo, HB 44 is still substantially weaker and diluted from the initiative itself, and I obviously prefer full-strength reforms over diluted reforms.”
Speaking Saturday morning, each said he would have preferred the language of the initiative, but he couldn’t say no to the bill.
“We like the initiative better. It’s stronger in some ways, but here’s a good piece of policy in front of us. Hard to say no thanks and not concur to the changes,” Grenn said.
Grenn said the 45,000 Alaskans who signed a petition to put the intiative on the ballot should not feel that they wasted their time. Without the initiative, the Legislature would not have felt pressure to pass the bill.
“I think Alaskans should realize they’re the ones that made this happen,” he said.
While Grenn supported passage of the bill, it does not accomplish his original goal of changing how the Legislature deals with conflicts of interest.
Under the Alaska Legislature’s existing rules, a lawmaker may declare a conflict of interest on the floor and ask to be excused from voting. If only one lawmaker objects to that person being excused from voting — an act that is not recorded in the Legislature’s official record — the person with the conflict will be required to vote.
HB 44 does not change that process, which is defined in the Legislature’s internal rules, not state law.
An attempt last year by Grenn to change the Legislature’s rules was defeated in a vote on the House floor. Rep. Sam Kito III, D-Juneau, and every member of the House Republican Minority voted against it. The idea needed 27 votes to advance; it received only 21.
Speaking Saturday, Grenn said that if he is re-elected to the Legislature, he will try again to change the rule.
Kreiss-Tomkins said he would also seek further improvements.
As for HB 44, the final decision on displacing the ballot measure will be made by the Alaska Department of Law after the governor signs the bill.
• Contact reporter James Brooks at firstname.lastname@example.org or 523-2258.