Opinions

Ballot initiative sounds good, but devil’s in the details

Ballot initiatives were established in the early 20th century as part of the "Progressive" movement's kit of tools designed to trim back power from entrenched political interests and return it to the voters.

By the early 21st century, however, this noble purpose is too often subverted by entrenched political interests as a way to dodge the sunlight of the traditional open legislative process, using half-truths in the guise of feel-good slogans to advance their own interests.

A case in point is the initiative sponsored by Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins (a second-term Sitka Democrat), Rep. Jason Grenn (a freshman Anchorage independent) and one private citizen.

Both lawmakers belong to the Democrat-led House majority caucus, and co-chair a group called "Alaskans for Integrity" that's gotten its "Alaska Government Accountability Act" certified for the next statewide ballot.

These two young, progressive politicians claim their "anti-corruption" initiative would speed the budget process, resolve legislators' conflicts of interest and limit lobbyists' corrupting influence — all noble-sounding goals, on first glance. Sadly, a first glance is all that most people may give this initiative, never understanding who's behind it and what it would really do.

Grenn and Kreiss-Tomkins' initiative is funded by an Outside political activist group pushing "anti-corruption" initiatives around the country. Such groups exploit controversial issues to boost turnout by voters aligned with their own partisan political interests. A closer look at these sponsors' claims, and their initiatives' true effects, is instructive.

First, Grenn and Kreiss-Tomkins target per diem. Is there an Alaskan alive who isn't mad at those darn legislators, wasting time in Juneau but racking up overtime pay? The initiative would end legislative per diem if no budget is passed by the 121-day session constitutional deadline. It's the same hot button that Gov. Bill Walker is pushing with his "pink-slip the politicians" slogan.

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The truth is, state law sets legislative pay at $50,400 per year, whether for 90 days of work or 365. The law also establishes per diem at near the regular state employee rate to defray legislators' costs to live and work away from home. It was the governor wielding his constitutional powers who has forced seven special sessions since 2017, not legislators.

In 2016, the session went past 90 days when the House Democrats resisted advancing a budget unless it drained our savings to pay for nonessentials like online homework help. In 2017, the session ran 181 days because Grenn and Kreiss-Tomkins' new Democrat-led majority refused to pass a budget without Gov. Walker's income tax, stoking public anger and building pressure.

This initiative would encourage lawmakers to spare themselves financial pain but inflict it on constituents in the form of new taxes and bigger budgets. Is that really what we want?

Second, Grenn and Kreiss-Tomkins' initiative would establish new rules for how legislators deal with conflicts of interest. Current law makes lawmakers publicly self-report possible conflicts and ask to be excused from voting on the issue. If a single legislator objects, permission to abstain is denied, and the member must vote.

The initiative would set new rules that a partisan majority could easily exploit.

For example:

If a legislator who worked for an oil company asked to be excused from voting on an oil tax increase bill, the majority could all vote "yes" to approve his request, so he could not vote. But if a member who worked for a public union asked to be excused from voting on a generous labor contracts, the majority could vote "no" to deny his request, so he could vote. That is unfair, and possibly unconstitutional.

Alaska's citizen legislators already must publicly report details of their personal finances and employment every year and must disclose possible conflicts before voting on a bill. Voters know, or should know, their candidates well enough to judge whether their day jobs carry conflicts that should disqualify them for election — or re-election. That should be the voter's choice, no one else's.

Third, the initiative would block "fat-cat lobbyists wining and dining legislators at fancy restaurants" by demanding lobbyists report buying any meal worth less than $15 – about the price of a hamburger and fries. But since 2007 lobbyists must publicly report buying any such meals worth more than $15. (For the record, I buy my own meals, whether eating with constituents, colleagues, lobbyists or friends.)

Our legislators vote on billion-dollar budgets and bills that critically impact Alaskans' public health, safety and well-being. If you think your legislator will sell out his convictions and principles for less than the price of a hamburger, you might need to spend more time vetting your candidates and less time signing initiatives.

All Alaskans should support "government accountability," and everyone should be an "Alaskan for Integrity." But we shouldn't let pretty packaging and fine-sounding words lull us into supporting an initiative that at best makes only minor tweaks to the rules, but at worst twists those rules to let partisan interests trample basic fairness.

Good government depends on clear and transparent processes that hold everyone accountable. Alaska voters should not let themselves be fooled by slick-sounding initiatives that conceal their true effects. Vote no on the Alaska Government Accountability Act.

Rep. Dan Saddler is the Republican minority floor leader and is in his fourth term representing Chugiak and Eagle River.

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