New lawmaker squarely targets Legislature’s conflicts of interest

Ray Metcalfe sat at a desk next to a wallet full of million-dollar bills and asked Alaska lawmakers to curtail corruption.

On Friday, members of the Alaska House Judiciary Committee heard testimony on House Bill 44 and House Concurrent Resolution 1, measures proposed by Rep. Jason Grenn, I-Anchorage, to identify conflicts of interest in the Legislature.

Metcalfe, who served in the House between 1978 and 1982, said he “saw bribery was rampant,” and he supports the effort by Grenn.

“It happens more often than you know,” said Metcalfe, who ran for U.S. Senate as a Democrat last fall.

Grenn’s proposals are the first by the Anchorage independent to get a hearing this session.

Advancing together, they would make it much more difficult for lawmakers to vote on a measure if they have a conflict of interest — something that would be defined as “substantial benefit or harm to the financial interest of the legislator’s immediate family member, the legislator’s employer, an immediate family member’s employer, a person with whom the legislator is negotiating employment, or from whom the legislator or immediate family member has received more than $10,000 in income within the last 12 months.”

The Legislature has no existing standard for conflict of interest, though lawmakers traditionally declare conflicts based on conscience.

Even when a lawmaker declares a conflict, it’s difficult for them to abstain. Only one lawmaker needs to object in order to force the conflicted lawmaker to vote.

Grenn’s HCR 1 proposal would change that rule: A majority vote would be required instead.

Speaking in favor of his legislation, Grenn said one of his goals is to improve transparency and accountability in government.

Members of the judiciary committee applauded that goal but wondered if Grenn’s strategy might have unintended consequences.

Rep. Chuck Kopp, R-Anchorage, asked whether a Legislative majority could manipulate Grenn’s rule to target members of the minority. In a close vote, the majority might declare a minority member has a conflict, then force them to abstain with a majority vote.

“There could be scenarios where what you’ve talked about potentially could happen,” Grenn said.

He added that if that happened, there would be a clear record and probable public condemnation.

“That vote now is public record, and the public can see that one side or the other is engaging in politics as opposed to engaging in good policy,” Grenn said.

Rep. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River, asked Grenn directly if he was attempting to engage in politics himself.

“Do you have any motivation in any way to alienate or target anyone associated with the oil and gas industry?” she said.

Grenn is a member of the coalition majority in the House, and that coalition has said that it intends to reform the state’s system of oil and gas drilling subsidies.

Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, and Sen. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, are each employed by oil and gas companies and declare conflicts when oil and gas issues come up for a vote.

Each time, including on the controversial Senate Bill 21 in 2013, they have been forced to vote.

“No, this is not meant toward anyone in this building in particular,” Grenn said. “There’s no target with this bill, other than to build public trust.”

After committee discussion, Grenn’s measures were held in committee ahead of possible amendments Monday.

Even if they advance through the House, they may encounter problems in the Senate.

On Friday morning, Senate President Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, said he isn’t personally convinced Grenn’s proposal is necessary.

“Everybody in the state of Alaska has a conflict,” he said. “We have business agents for unions working. We have people who have spouses who are teachers. They’re totally tied into the state budget.”

More in News

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File
The Aurora Borealis glows over the Mendenhall Glacier in 2014.
Aurora Forecast

Forecasts from the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute for the week of March. 19

President Joe Biden speaks during an event in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, March 23, 2023, celebrating the 13th anniversary of the Affordable Care Act. Recent moves by President Joe Biden to pressure TikTok over its Chinese ownership and approve oil drilling in an untapped area of Alaska are testing the loyalty of young voters, a group that’s been largely in his corner. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)
Biden’s moves on Willow, TikTok test young voters

A potential TikTok ban and the Alaska drilling could weigh down reelection bid.

Students dance their way toward exiting the Juneau-Douglas High School: Kalé gymnasium near the end of a performance held before a Gold Medal Basketball Tournament game between Juneau and Hydaburg. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)
Over $2,500 raised for Tlingit language and culture program during Gold Medal performance

A flurry of regionwide generosity generated the funds in a matter of minutes.

Legislative fiscal analysts Alexei Painter, right, and Conor Bell explain the state’s financial outlook during the next decade to the Senate Finance Committee on Friday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Legislators eye oil and sales taxes due to fiscal woes

Bills to collect more from North Slope producers, enact new sales taxes get hearings next week.

The FBI Anchorage Field Office is seeking information about this man in relation to a Wednesday bank robbery in Anchorage, the agency announced Thursday afternoon. Anyone with information regarding the bank robbery can contact the FBI Anchorage Field Office at 907-276-4441 or Tips can be submitted anonymously.  (FBI)
FBI seeks info in Anchorage bank robbery

The robbery took place at 1:24 p.m. on Wednesday.

Kevin Maier
Sustainable Alaska: Climate stories, climate futures

The UAS Sustainability Committee is hosting a series of public events in April…

Reps. Tom McKay, R-Anchorage, and Andi Story, D-Juneau, offering competing amendments to a bill increasing the per-student funding formula for public schools by $1,250 during a House Education Committee meeting Wednesday morning. McKay’s proposal to lower the increase to $150 was defeated. Story’s proposal to implement an increase during the next two years was approved, after her proposed amounts totalling about $1,500 were reduced to $800.
Battle lines for education funding boost get clearer

$800 increase over two years OKd by House committee, Senate proposing $1,348 two-year increase

A call for a joint session of the Alaska State Legislature to cast a vote that would reject recently-approved salary increases for legislators and top executive branch officials is made by State House Speaker Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla, during a press conference Tuesday. Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, rejected the joint session in a letter to Tilton on Wednesday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
House efforts to nix legislative pay raises hit Senate roadblock

Call for a joint session rejected by upper chamber, bills to overturn pay hikes may lack support

A simulated photo shows the tailings stack and other features of Hecla Greens Creek Mine under the most aggressive of four alternatives for expanding the mine in an environmental impact assessment published Thursday by the U.S Forest Service. The tailings stack is modestly to drastically smaller in the other alternatives. The public comment period for the study is from March 24 to May 8. (U.S. Forest Service)
New study digs into alternatives for Greens Creek Mine expansion

Public comment starts Friday on four options that could extend mine’s life up to 40 years

Most Read