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After Alaska House passes minimum wage bill, Chenault takes ballot initiative leader to task

Dermot Cole

JUNEAU -- The Alaska House narrowly approved a measure Sunday evening to boost the minimum wage to $9 per hour as of July 1, which -- if it now passes the Senate -- would remove an initiative set for the statewide primary ballot in August that would raise it to $8.75 as of next January.

Moments after the 21-19 vote, House Speaker Mike Chenault took to the floor to rip into Ed Flanagan, a former state labor commissioner and chairman of the group that led the drive for the ballot initiative.

“There’s trouble in our House," Chenault said.

He distributed copies to House members of a photo of Flanagan taken Wednesday during the single hearing on the minimum wage bill. The photo shows Flanagan holding a notebook, on which he had drawn a dollar sign.  

“We all know that a picture is worth a thousand words. Or in this case, does it mean dollars? You tell me. What story does the picture tell?” Chenault said.

“I see a man, representing organized labor, sitting in a committee room, flashing a dollar sign to elected members of this body as they deliberated the minimum wage bill,” he said.

Chenault said Flanagan “damn well ought to know better” and compared the situation to the behavior of former Veco boss Bill Allen in 2006, who was at the core of the Polar Pen investigation into corruption among elected Alaska officials.

“Now I ask you, what would you think if that was a picture of Bill Allen back in 2006?”

“Like it or not, appearance is reality,” Chenault said.

He said the House “was colored a few years ago by the unfortunate actions of a few,” but that legislators have worked hard to restore dignity to the House.

“I cannot and I will not tolerate even the appearance. I cannot and will not tolerate the reality,” he said.

Chenault said it did not matter what Flanagan’s intentions were. The appearance was bad enough.

“We keep a clean House. We expect visitors to our House, participants in our process to respect the integrity of that process and to abide by a code of conduct,” he said.

Chenault said “we will not tolerate this type of behavior that you’ve seen in this picture.”

“We will not be coerced, threatened or strong-armed into any other decision,” said Chenault.

Flanagan responded immediately afterward in the hallway outside the House chambers, showing reporters his notebook with the hand-drawn dollar sign on an inside page.

Flanagan scoffed at Chenault's charges. He said he was not trying to coerce, intimidate or threaten anyone. He said he was holding it up to get the attention of Anchorage Democratic Rep. Andy Josephson, an opponent of the bill,  about the need for a realistic fiscal note to show how much the bill would cost the state.

Flanagan said the fiscal note released last week said the bill won’t cost the state anything, but he doesn’t believe it.

“I thought about writing ‘F note’ which wouldn’t have made any sense and wouldn’t have been legible,” he said.

Flanagan said, “Less than 10 minutes after the hearing was over, the Speaker said, ‘I need to talk to you.’ We walked a little ways down the hall. He said, ‘You know how this could look?’”

Flanagan said he had not thought that anyone would misinterpret what he was doing. He said he explained to Chenault he was trying to get the attention of Josephson.

Flanagan said the “bogus allegation” that he was trying to strong-arm legislators is an attempt to try and get support in the Senate for Chenault’s bill.

In a press conference later, Chenault said he was not accusing Flanagan of anything illegal, but he rejected the explanation of events offered by the former commissioner.

“If I got caught doing something too and I thought I might be in trouble, I would explain it a different way myself,” Chenault said.

“You don’t make motions that like to committee members in committee,” Chenault said.

Flanagan said the complaint by Chenault was a “smokescreen.”

“He got a 21-19 vote. That’s pretty embarrassing for the Speaker and his majority. It’s because of the hypocrisy that this vote represents,” Flanagan said.

The minimum wage measure, approved after more than two-and-a-half hours of debate, has yet to be heard in the Senate, where it could figure into end-of-the-session negotiations.

The fast-track bill, filed on April 4 at the request of Chenault, received one hearing in the Legislature before reaching the House floor.

The legislative debate Sunday afternoon and evening centered on whether the GOP motivation was to boost the minimum wage as soon as possible or to knock the initiative off the ballot.

Most Republicans argued it was the former, while Democrats argued the latter.

Anchorage Rep. Mike Hawker said a survey of his constituents before the session showed support for raising the minimum wage by a margin of almost two-to-one.

“I am here representing my constituents, what they told me they wanted and nothing more and no ulterior motives,” said Hawker.

Anchorage Rep. Lance Pruitt said 71 percent of Alaskans trust the state government, according to a recent poll.

“But yet, I’m so disturbed that in this room today and outside of this room, I’ve heard people that have said citizens should not trust their government,” he said.

“I don’t think that’s an appropriate manner to turn around and indicate that there are motives here that are not correct,” he said.

Anchorage Rep. Dan Saddler said there had been a “fair amount of discussions about motivations and inappropriately so...”

He said approving the bill would give people who signed the initiative what they wanted, only that it would take place six months sooner and be 25 cents higher.  The measure was amended to set the minimum wage at $9 in July and $10 at the end of 2015.

Fairbanks Rep. Pete Higgins said those who really support the minimum wage increase would vote for the bill, while those who voted the other way were just campaigning.

“I’m here to get ahead of the problem and that’s what we’re going to do,” he said.

Some Republicans and most Democrats said they supported raising the minimum wage, but not in this manner. Several said they believe in the initiative process and did not want to short-circuit that with a bill that was introduced last week.

Anchorage Democratic Rep. Les Gara said the bill was filed “to knock the initiative off the ballot, in my view. I just think that’s obvious.”

“I have a lot of suspicions regarding this bill,” said Gara's fellow Anchorage Democratic Rep. Harriett Drummond. “I’m suspicious of the timing and the speed by which it moved through this body. I’m very suspicious about the sudden interest in inflation-proofing.”

“I’m not suspicious of initiatives. I’m not suspicious of the intent of the general public,” Drummond said.

The ballot measure, as well as the initiative, includes a provision linking future increases to inflation starting in 2018.

Fairbanks Democratic Rep. David Guttenberg said the 43,000 Alaskans who signed the petition should be allowed to vote on the measure. "I trust the people to go to the polls and do the right thing," he said.

Numerous opponents of the bill said they would rather the issue go to the voters because a ballot initiative cannot be changed for two years, while an act of the Legislature has no such restriction. Republican supporters said they have no intention of reversing any aspects of the bill. After a minimum wage increase in 2002, the Legislature removed a provision the next year to link it to inflation.

No one mentioned the oil tax repeal measure on the August primary ballot and whether the presence of a minimum wage initiative also on the ballot would hurt or hinder that cause.

Democrats said later they did not mention oil taxes because they could not bring up a topic that is officially unrelated under the rules of legislative debate.

“We do not have a piece of legislation in our body now that’s dealing with that. That’s why we didn’t bring it up. Tonight is the minimum wage,” Chenault said at a House Majority press conference.

Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, said that if the session goes just a little bit over the Sunday deadline, all of the measures, except for the oil tax repeal, would be moved to November. He said the oil tax repeal is not a factor in this situation.

He said he believes there is a “miniscule” chance of finishing all legislative business by the Sunday deadline.