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Hassle over $10,000 highlights need for more Alaska budget transparency

Dermot Cole
istockphoto

FAIRBANKS -- Late last Saturday, 24-and-a-half hours before the Alaska Legislature was supposed to adjourn, the House Finance Committee released its version of the capital budget, leaving no time for public review.

The practice of waiting until the last moment to release a bill that deals with a couple of billion dollars guarantees that there will be surprises in the document -- tennis courts come to mind -- items that Alaskans have not had the chance to digest.

Shortly before midnight, one reader happened to spot a surprising passage on page 102 of the 133-page bill and sent a note to Juneau reporters.

I looked up the bill and saw that it had language directing $25,000 to the governor’s office for “providing information that may influence the outcome of an election on initiatives that will appear on a statewide election ballot” in 2014.

It was a small surprise, as these things go, important because of principle, not the dollar amount.

I wrote a story that appeared Sunday morning in Alaska Dispatch about the election money and stated that it could not be aimed the oil tax repeal because that ballot measure is a referendum, not an initiative.

The draft bill said nothing about a referendum.

I asked a few legislators about this, who were also surprised to see it in the bill. Anchorage Rep. Les Gara predicted a bipartisan group would try to get it deleted before that day was through.

State law prohibits spending public money to influence the outcome of elections in which candidates run for office, but lawmakers in years past did include an exception for initiatives and other ballot measures.

Taxpayer 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.

I will leave it to someone else to defend this law, a measure that strikes me as ripe for a rewrite.

In any case, the law that allows campaigning also requires that spending public money to influence the outcome of an election must come with a statement of purpose. The draft capital budget said the purpose of the $25,000 appropriation was “providing information that may influence the outcome of an election on initiatives” this year.

As Easter Sunday progressed, lawmakers met in secret, and at times in public, on a host of major issues, from crime to education. They talked about millions and billions.

It would have taken a miracle to finish everything that day. And nothing miraculous happened, except perhaps for the day-long sit-in by advocates of the Native languages bill, a show of support that helped win its passage in the Senate.

One of the many small points discussed in private that day was the $25,000 appropriation for influencing elections.

On Sunday morning, the committee met at 9 a.m., with Committee Co-Chairman Bill Stoltze saying he was still making changes to the multi-billion-dollar bill. The group reconvened that afternoon. Stoltze announced that the $10 million item in the bill for the Susitna hydro project would be increased to $20 million and he would make other changes.

"We don't want to pull any surprises on the public," he said.

At 11:32 p.m. Sunday, which was 28 minutes before the Legislature was supposed to end its session,  Stoltze opened the hearing on the updated committee substitute capital budget.

Gara brought up his opposition to the election money, which had been cut to a $10,000 appropriation since the morning. In addition, the language justifying the money had been changed to remove the bit about influencing an election.

The new wording said the governor’s office would get the money for the “purpose of providing information about the potential effects of a ballot proposition, if approved by the voters, that will appear on a statewide election ballot” in 2014.

The word “initiatives” had been replaced with “ballot proposition,” meaning that the oil tax repeal could be a  target for expenditures. The bill no longer mentioned “influencing an election,” but the law given as the justification for spending the money provided permission to do just that.

The committee discussed this $10,000 item for about 25 minutes. Administration officials said the money was for information, and it was a “small sum” to prevent problems with the Alaska Public Offices Commission. 

They also noted that $25,000 had been placed in the budget before the statewide Alaska Coastal Zone Management vote in 2012. As was the case this time, that money appeared in the budget shortly before adjournment, with no time for public debate.

“We are certainly legally allowed to do this,” Gara said. “The question is whether we should do it. My view is that we should not do it.”

Stoltze said there are assembly races in Anchorage that cost $300,000.

“I don’t know how $10,000 can be used in any effective way to really influence an election for practical purposes,” said Stoltze.

Stoltze said that “Representative Gara’s already got his headlines. I don’t know which way we want to go on this one,” referring to the Alaska Dispatch story.

“My apologies to the employees who may be fined for doing their jobs,” said Stoltze.

Gara proposed deleting the language, but it failed on a 5-6 vote. Voting to keep the money in the bill were Reps. Lindsey Holmes, Cathy Muñoz, Steve Thompson, Marc Neuman, Bryce Edgmon and  Tammie Wilson. Voting to remove the money were Reps. David Guttenberg, Alan Austerman, Mia Costello, Stoltze and Gara.

At about 1 a.m. or so, I can’t remember the exact time, I heard one beleaguered legislator complaining about the protracted discussion over $10,000.

Just down the hall from where he said that hangs a photo of the late John Butrovich Jr., a Fairbanks legislator for 30 years.

I recalled that Butrovich once told Anchorage columnist Michael Carey that Alaska legislators had no idea about what it meant to be short on money.

“Years ago, we had some people from education come in to the Finance Committee who said they didn't have enough money for postage. And I told them, 'Then stop sending letters.' That's the way it was in those days,’” Butrovich said.

To paraphrase the late Everett Dirksen, “$10,000 here and $10,000 there. Pretty soon you’re talking about real money.”

The following day, Monday, which should have been the first day after the session, the House unanimously approved an amendment to delete the $10,000 appropriation.

In the end it was the right decision, but it happened under circumstances that reveal exactly why the Legislature needs to adopt new rules to publish budget documents in a timely manner -- providing the public time to comment on surprises large and small, such as whether the state should be spending money to influence the vote on ballot measures.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints.