Voter initiatives on pot, wages and Pebble move to November ballot, but oil tax vote stays on for August

Lisa Demer
Bill Roth

The Legislature's failure to finish this year's session by Sunday means three ballot measures that had been set for the August primary ballot now are being moved to November.

The three voter-led initiatives -- seeking legalization of marijuana, an increase in the minimum wage and legislative approval for a big Bristol Bay mine -- are set for the Nov. 4 general election ballot, according to state elections director Gail Fenumiai.

But a separate voter-led referendum, which seeks to repeal oil tax cuts passed in 2013, will remain on the Aug. 19 primary ballot. Referendums that seek to approve or repeal new state laws follow a different schedule than initiatives trying to make new laws.

The initiatives now set for November are expected to draw out liberal, progressive and younger voters.

That means the changing election lineup could ease the way for the oil industry to defeat the referendum on Senate Bill 21, the Parnell administration's oil tax cuts.

But the new schedule also may help Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat whose seat is being targeted nationally by Republicans and conservatives. In November with the initiatives on the ballot, Begich will be fighting the Republican who wins the August primary.

Neither side on the oil tax fight says they expect the issue to be decided by the new timing for the initiatives.

Jerry McBeath, a political science professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said the huge amounts of money pouring into the oil tax fight from oil companies will overwhelm those trying to repeal the tax cuts no matter what else is on the ballot.

The oil industry argues that the tax cuts are needed to curb a decline in North Slope oil production and bring new investment and jobs.

"Some Democrats and liberals accept the argument you don't kill the goose that lays the golden eggs," McBeath said.

The main group fighting the oil tax measure already has raised about $7 million, most of it from ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and BP, and is running an intense television campaign.

Backers of the referendum, who have reported raising little money so far in their attempt to repeal the oil tax cuts, don't plan to run a television campaign but say they will start pushing their story in the next month. They disagree that their ballot measure will face new trouble now that it's isolated.

"In one sense, it makes the primary election more about Senate Bill 21 than anything," said Chancy Croft, a former state Senate president and one of the leaders of "Vote Yes! Repeal the Giveaway."

The group will need to change its strategies and work on a different voting block than those who would have been drawn to the polls by the initiatives, he said.

Educators and parents frustrated with the GOP-led majorities' resistance to increase the school funding formula may be key, he said.

"They could give away one billion to two billion to the oil companies, but they couldn't fully fund education," Croft said. "I think we have a ready made group of voters."

Willis Lyford, campaign director of "Vote No on One," said he thinks his side will benefit with more attention, too. He only learned the Legislature went long when he checked the Internet around 7 a.m. Monday.

"I wasn't losing sleep over having all the measures on the August ballot. I didn't get any sense of relief from the change," Lyford said.

Still unresolved is a bill to raise the minimum wage, which, if it passes before the Legislature adjourns, would remove that initiative from the November ballot.

Backers of the minimum wage initiative are fighting the bill. They worry it's a trick and that lawmakers could return next year and cut out the heart of the legislation, including automatic minimum wage increases based on inflation, like they did with a similar minimum wage bill passed in 2002. They couldn't mess with a voter initiative for two years.

Both Lyford and Art Hackney, who is running a SuperPAC that is supporting Senate candidate Dan Sullivan, said Begich will be the main beneficiary with the new election schedule. McBeath, the professor, agreed that Begich might get a slight advantage with the change.

The campaigns of Sullivan and fellow GOP Senate candidates Joe Miller and Mead Treadwell, the lieutenant governor, didn't respond to emails about the matter. Begich's campaign didn't dispute that the change in timing might help what is expected to be a very close race.

The Legislature had been scheduled to finish Sunday night, day 90 of this year's session. But lawmakers kept going past midnight, then resumed again Monday.

Senate President Charlie Huggins was still hoping to finish on time as recently as Saturday. Senate leaders didn't want to bump the the initiatives to November because that could hurt various Republicans in close races, said Carolyn Kuckertz, spokeswoman for the Senate majority.

Under the state constitution, an initiative must appear on the first statewide ballot more than 120 days after the Legislature adjourns its regular session following the filing of the initiative petition.

Had the Legislature ended on time, the primary election would have been held on the 121st day after adjournment. This year's primary is earlier than it used to be under a law passed last year that moved it up from the fourth Tuesday to the third Tuesday.

Now, with the longer-than-expected session, the first statewide election more than 120 days after adjournment will be the general election.

State law puts a 90-day limit on legislative sessions. The constitution allows 120-day sessions. The Legislature's lawyers have advised that the constitution guides the matter.

Reach Lisa Demer at or 257-4390.

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