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Long legislative session bumps voter initiatives, may help oil industry

Lisa Demer

While House and Senate leaders say they are pushing for an early end to this year's legislative session, if lawmakers go just a few minutes past the scheduled deadline of midnight April 20, three ballot measures will be bumped from the August primary to the November general election.

That could have big consequences.

The voter initiatives -- to legalize marijuana, increase the minimum wage and require legislative approval of a big mine such as Pebble in the Bristol Bay region -- are expected to be big draws for voters, and largely more liberal and progressive voters.

Also on the August ballot is a voter referendum that aims to repeal the oil tax cuts of 2013. Pushing the initiatives and diverting those voters to November could help what's become an oil industry cause; the Senate Bill 21 referendum would remain on the August ballot no matter what. Referendums, which in the state system are proposals to wipe out existing law, are scheduled differently than initiatives, which are attempts to create new law.

The effort to kill the referendum, and let the tax cuts stand, had raised more than $6.8 million so far, most of it from BP, ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips. BP alone has given about $3.6 million, according to reports filed with the Alaska Public Offices Commission.

But pushing the ballot measures to the general election also could bring out more left-leaning voters in November, which would help Democrats, including U.S. Mark Begich.

"The clear beneficiary would be Mark Begich," said Willis Lyford, campaign director of "Vote No on One," the group that hopes to defeat the Senate Bill 21 referendum and keep the tax cuts.

He said the August ballot would be "cleaner" without the three voter initiatives but he doesn't know whether moving them would help his side as much as it would help Begich and other Democrats in November.

"If we are looking a hair-close Senate race, then I would be worried about these issues having an impact on that as well," Lyford said. And other tight general election contests for the Legislature could be influenced by a push of progressive initiative voters, he said.

The Begich campaign had no comment on the initiative timing.

TWISTING TO ADVANTAGE

Chancy Croft, one of those pushing the Senate Bill 21 referendum, said his side will try to use the maneuvering to its advantage if the initiatives are bumped and the biggest items left on the primary ballot are the referendum and the fight among Republicans to challenge Begich in November, which will draw out conservatives.

"I don't think it's a foregone conclusion that this hurts us," Croft said Friday. For one, he said, his side may be better able to make its case to voters without having to compete for their attention with initiatives.

And if the Legislature bumps initiatives to help his opposition, that underscores his grassroot group's assertion that Gov. Sean Parnell and the GOP-led Legislature did the oil industry's bidding in cutting oil taxes.

"There's no use crying or bewailing it," Croft said.

Backers of the initiatives on marijuana legalization, minimum wage increase and legislative control over the proposed Pebble gold and copper mine say it won't matter which ballot they appear on.

Primary elections tend to have low voter turnout but that could change with hot initiatives. The marijuana initiative especially is expected to be a lure; a new George Washington University national poll of likely voters found that almost four in 10 were "much more likely" to vote if marijuana legalization was on the ballot.

"The Legislature is dealing with a number of important issues this year, and I don't think anyone will be surprised if they end up requiring extra time to complete their work," said Taylor Bickford, with the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Alaska.

Polls show voter support for "an end to marijuana prohibition," he said.

"Whether or not the initiatives get placed on the primary or general ballot is a non-issue for us," Bickford said.

Vince Beltrami, president of the AFL-CIO and one of those behind the proposed minimum wage increase, said legislators shouldn't mess around with the timing, but it won't matter.

A Dittman poll done in March for the House Majority found broad support, with 69 percent of the Alaskans surveyed backing the minimum wage increase including 87 percent of Democrats and 52 percent of Republicans. But 57 percent of those who considered themselves "very conservative" opposed it.

Legalization of marijuana was a closer call, with the Dittman poll finding that 52 percent of Alaskans backed it and 44 percent opposed it. Among Democrats, it was 64 percent supporting; among Republicans, it was 57 percent opposed. Young adults were the strongest supporters. A Public Policy Polling survey in February of Alaska voters -- as opposed to Alaskans -- found that 55 percent backed legalizing recreational marijuana use.

A new twist came Friday when the House Rules Committee proposed legislation to increase the minimum wage. Its passage would kill that voter initiative, over Beltrami's objection.

OUT BY EASTER?

No legislative leader has said publicly that he or she wants to push the initiatives to November by staying in session past the scheduled end on April 20, Easter Sunday.

Still, House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, and Senate President Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, sounded a little less confident this week about ending the session before Easter as they had earlier in the session.

"It's still our intention to get out of here on time," Chenault told reporters Thursday. "Our hope is to get out of here before Easter Sunday. We are going to do our best to get the people's work done and get it done correctly."

Huggins told reporters he had first heard talk about moving the initiatives in November 2013 and noted that the Legislature could make that happen.

But: "I am advocating for us getting out of here previous to the final day," he said. Still, he noted that he's just one of 20 senators and 60 legislators.

Under the state Constitution, a voter initiative must be scheduled "for the first statewide election more than one hundred twenty days after adjournment of the legislative session following the filing" of the initiative petition.

This year, the primary election is scheduled for Aug. 19 -- earlier than it used to be under a law passed last year that moved it up from the fourth Tuesday to the third Tuesday. That's the 121st day after the scheduled adjournment.

If either the House or Senate is still wrapping up even a few minutes into April 21, that means the first statewide election more than 120 days later wouldn't be the primary, but rather the Nov. 4 general, said Gail Fenumiai, director of Alaska's elections division.

"It will change what is on the ballot," she said.

CAN GO 120 DAYS

While state law specifies a 90-day legislative session, the Constitution allows up to 120 days. The Constitution trumps the law, so the Legislature can keep going past April 20 without taking any special action, said Doug Gardner, the Legislature's director of legal services.

"In essence the Legislature, if it needed additional time could go two days, five days, up to 120," he said.

Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage and chairwoman of the Senate Rules Committee, told reporters this week she would oppose going long -- especially if the intent was to alter the initiative timing.

"I worry that when you maneuver things like schedule and others, you start getting into an area where it can be viewed as electioneering," McGuire said. "So I am very protective of that and cautious."

If the Legislature didn't finish its work, it could reconvene in a special session if either the governor or two-thirds of the legislators called one.

A special session wouldn't bump the initiatives, according to the elections director, Fenumiai.

Reach Lisa Demer at ldemer@adn.com or 257-4390.

 


By LISA DEMER
ldemer@adn.com
Contact Lisa Demer at LDemer@adn.com or on