A state agency has rejected a complaint that parents who volunteered to spend the last month of the legislative session in Juneau seeking money for schools should have registered as paid lobbyists.
The Alaska Public Offices Commission staff took only a day to determine there was no merit to the complaint filed Wednesday by former middle school math teacher and legislative candidate David Nees.
In her letter rejecting the complaint, an APOC staffer told Nees that even if his allegations were true, there would be no violation of the law because the parents were unpaid and their lobbying trips unsubsidized by others.
Joan Mize, the lobbyist program coordinator in the agency’s Juneau office, reminded Nees in her letter about the rights that citizens have to talk to their legislators under the First Amendment and a similar section of the Alaska Constitution. The law mandating paid lobbyists to register “is not intended to stifle the ability of the people to petition their government or express their opinions on pending legislation or administrative action,” Mize wrote.
Nees challenged Alison Arians, a Great Alaska Schools Anchorage parent, and at least one other from the group, Deena Mitchell, in complaints filed Wednesday. (Nees said he filed against four parents, but Mize knew of only two, and others in the organization didn’t know whether more were cited.)
Nees accused them of violating the “10-hour rule," a provision that defines a lobbyist for registration purposes as a person who lobbies the Legislature or administration for more than 10 hours in any 30-day period and is paid to do so, or at least has expenses paid.
Great Alaska Schools parents were fixtures in the Capitol in the last month of the session as they prowled hallways and attended committee hearings. Their primary objectives were an increase in per-student state spending to make up for losses to inflation since the last raise in 2011, and ensuring substantial increases in the allowance through 2017. They got neither when the Legislature adjourned in April.
Arians and the others said they paid their own way to Juneau. Great Alaska Schools doesn’t raise money and has no officers, she said. They haven’t incorporated the organization, keeping it a loose association of like-minded parents and public school supporters.
“We’re just a group of citizens that have similar interests and concerns about what’s going on with public schools," Arians said in a telephone interview. “The fantastic thing about this group is that there’s not just a lot of talkers. Everybody is a real doer."
Last year, Nees served on the House Task Force on Sustainable Education and ran for the Anchorage School Board and lost. He was a candidate this year in the Republican primary for House District 22, an open seat in the Sand Lake neighborhood, but his candidate application was rejected by the Division of Elections because he failed to have his signature notarized as required by law. Nees said Friday he’s considering a court appeal of that ruling.
Nees said he had no information that any of the Great Alaska Schools members were paid to lobby and hadn’t looked up the legal definition of a lobbyist.
“They did spend three weeks down in Juneau, camped out there," he said.
Though he disagrees with the goals of the parents, he said, he didn’t file the complaints to harass them.
“I wanted clarification. The easiest way to get clarification is file the paperwork and go from there," Nees said.
Arians said Nees’ complaints could have a been a problem had APOC not received an anonymous query about the parents earlier and put the matter to rest then.
Mize, the Juneau APOC staffer, said a caller from a legislative office had asked in April whether the parents had registered as lobbyists. Mize said she didn’t know whose office had called.
“That’s when (Arians) said she was coming down on her own, nobody reimbursed them, there was no membership fee, they were not raising money to have money to spend," Mize said. The Great Alaska Schools members were told they were exempt from the lobbying laws but were directed to report if their situation changed.
Arians said she got the call from APOC while she and other parents were in the Capitol.
“The nice thing about that was we got that all straightened out at the time and had it all documented," Arians said. “I can only imagine if there had been no interaction between us and APOC back then — oh, my goodness — had we had to go through all this and find an attorney and go through all the steps, that would be a big thing right now."
Great Alaska Schools is now turning its attention to the election. The group is sending a 20-question survey to candidates and plans to post the answers on its website. Arians said two candidates have already returned the survey, which is due July 22. Arians said the group has called a meeting to decide how it will issue its “seal of approval" to candidates whose education goals match theirs.