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Legislators put $25,000 into draft budget to 'influence' initiative elections

Dermot Cole

JUNEAU -- The House Finance Committee draft version of the capital budget released late Saturday night includes a provision that could trigger a big end-of-session debate over a small amount of money.

The draft calls for appropriating $25,000 to the governor’s office for “providing information that may influence the outcome of an election on initiatives” scheduled for the statewide ballot this year. There are three initiatives scheduled for the ballot in August, dealing with the minimum wage, the legalization of marijuana and Bristol Bay fisheries. The budget doesn’t say which initiatives the $25,000 would be spent on or why.

The draft budget was prepared by majority members meeting in secret, so it’s not clear if the money is there at the request of the governor or a legislator. It's likely that some lawmakers will try to remove the money and avoid charges that the state is trying to improperly influence an election.

If the legislative session continues into Monday, the initiatives would be moved to the November ballot. The original 90-day session was set to end Sunday.

If the Legislature takes action on a bill to raise the minimum wage Sunday, that initiative would be removed from the ballot entirely.

The referendum set for the August election that would repeal the oil tax cut approved a year ago is a not an initiative, so the budget item does not refer to oil taxes.

Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, said Sunday that the item was a surprise to him and others in the House, and he believes there's bipartisan support to remove it from the final budget.

This is not the first time that state money for campaigning on initiatives has popped up in the budget unannounced and shortly before adjournment.

Two years ago, the capital budget approved by legislators and signed by Gov. Sean Parnell included the same language to spend $25,000 in state money on influencing an initiative election.

The two initiatives that appeared that year on the ballot dealt with Alaska Coastal Zone Management and property tax exemptions.

Former Juneau Democratic Rep. Beth Kerttula said the "amendment came into the capital budget" shortly before the end of the session.

She said she wanted to "keep the governor's office out of campaigning on the initiative" and offered an amendment to remove that from the budget at 10:45 p.m. on April 15, 2012.

No one in the House defended the idea of using state money for campaigning, but Kerttula's amendment failed 11-27 along party lines about an hour-and-a-half before the House adjourned the session.

State law prohibits spending money to influence the outcome of candidates for state office, but it does include an exception for initiatives.

Public money “may be used to influence the outcome of an election concerning a ballot proposition or question, but only if the funds have been specifically appropriated for that purpose by a state law or municipal ordinance,” according to AS 15.13.145.

State regulation regarding that law requires “notice on the public record that the funds will be used to influence the outcome of an election.”