It's time to break the Alaska Legislature's habit of secrecy

Legislators are meeting in secret in Juneau on momentous questions that could shape the future of Alaska for decades.

It's no secret they disagree about the budget, oil taxes, oil tax credits, the return of the income tax, increases in other taxes, whether to restructure the Alaska Permanent Fund and the formula for the Permanent Fund dividend.

By keeping these arguments out of public view, perhaps fearing an outbreak of candor, legislative leaders have shortchanged Alaskans. This will make it harder for legislators interested in re-election to gain public acceptance if, and when, these matters are settled.

Rather than hide the haggling, legislative leaders should recognize the total collapse of oil revenue warrants a more open process. The tradition of secrecy is exactly the wrong approach, given the scope of the proposed remedies and the end of business as usual.

Private meetings are not illegal because the Legislature long ago exempted itself from the rules about public meetings that work well for local governments across Alaska.

The Legislature has what it calls "open meetings guidelines" that allow for private meetings about almost anything, including "political strategy," a term that is vague enough to cover everything from dinner plans to the future of the PFD.

"But we are not voting at these meetings," legislators will say, so they don't have to be open to the public.


In a 1994 hearing about public meetings, former Wrangell Sen. Robin Taylor said legislators had to be able to meet with each other privately to make the process work. People not in the Legislature would never understand, he said.

"Maybe I guess the way you solve it is you just say that there's a public meeting constantly going on in the legislative halls and anytime anybody's in this building, they have to be recorded and there has to be speakers going in all the conferences and discussions in the halls, or the lounge, or the restroom or wherever they take place have to be somehow available for other people to listen in on," he said.

That imaginary extreme makes no more sense than the secret process that led this week to the House Rules Committee oil tax credit bill by Anchorage Rep. Craig Johnson. Some lawmakers had been meeting privately to try to find a compromise on oil tax credits, but this bill was not the result of their efforts.

The bill leans heavily in favor of the major North Slope oil companies and against most of the newer companies that have entered the picture. The public has a right to know who wrote the bill and how it came about. The total fiscal impact would mean about $1 billion less to the state over the next six years compared to the original legislation introduced by the governor.

The Johnson bill was not the result of an idle conversation in the legislative lounge.

Two days after that 1994 meeting, Taylor proposed an amendment that won approval to remove the Legislature from the mix. After the removal, he said, "Think we can live this thing now?"

One of the committee members who argued for more transparency in those meetings 22 years ago, former Sen. Suzanne Little, said a more open process could be a better one for Alaskans. In a phone interview Wednesday in Anchorage, she said she still believes that. "It would improve the process because the public would be more informed about decisions that are being made with public money," she said.

At one time, the Legislature had subjected itself to the open meetings law, but it chose not to follow the requirements. In 1987, the Alaska Supreme Court said it did not have the power to order compliance, citing the separation of powers doctrine.

To end what had become a bit of an embarrassment, the Legislature exempted itself from the law. It would take a constitutional amendment to force the Legislature to meet in the open, but giving up the power to cut deals behind closed doors is not on the legislative priority list.

The state is long overdue for an examination of the line in the state Constitution that says lawmakers "shall adopt uniform rules of procedure."

A better dividing line between secrecy and openness would give more weight to landmark decisions taking shape now about taxes, the Permanent Fund and the future of the state economy.

Columnist Dermot Cole lives in Fairbanks. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

Dermot Cole

Former ADN columnist Dermot Cole is a longtime reporter, editor and author.