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Alaskans deserve credit for their part in legislative ethics reform

  • Author: Jason Grenn
    | Opinion
    , Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins
    | Opinion
  • Updated: July 17, 2018
  • Published July 17, 2018

The State Capitol building in Juneau on Friday, April 17, 2015.

We want to thank you, Alaska.

Why? Because this year, in a massive step for legislative ethics reform, House Bill 44 passed the Legislature. And it's all because of you.

Alaskans have long demanded major improvements that create more trust and transparency with our elected officials in Juneau. However, asking legislators to change policies that affect themselves is almost like skiing down Denali backwards – a little challenging. That's why we, along with Bonnie Jack of Anchorage, a Republican, became co-chairs of the "Alaskans for Integrity" ballot measure so that the public could demand changes. You may remember signing a petition for this outside your local grocery store or reading about it in the news.
The ballot initiative was a multi-part package of public interest and good governance reforms. Some highlights included:

• "No budget, no pay." If the Legislature fails to pass an operating budget by day 121 of the legislative session (as is required by the Alaska Constitution), legislators will not receive per diem. Basically, if we don't do our job in Juneau in a timely fashion, the people of Alaska shouldn't have to pay for it.

• Closing the lobbyist food and drink exemption. There's a culture in Juneau of being wined and dined by lobbyists over expensive meals and drinks. Lobbyists pick up the tab and it's perfectly legal. We think we as legislators are perfectly capable of picking up our own tab, just like anyone else.

• Strengthening the foreign travel policy for legislators. It's expensive to travel overseas, and when it comes to legislative travel, it shouldn't be done without good reason. Rather than automatically qualifying for state funding, we think legislators should go through a more rigorous pre-approval process and demonstrate their travel has a clear legislative purpose that benefits Alaska.

• Defining stricter conflict-of-interest rules. To best serve all Alaskans, legislators should at least acknowledge matters that affect their own financial interests or those of their immediate family members. They should also declare their conflict of interests openly in committee before acting on legislation. Municipal officers across the state are held to this standard – state elected officials should be too.

As we worked to get these reforms to a vote of the people, nearly 50,000 Alaskans signed the petition to make it happen. Across the state, from Bethel to Valdez, Sitka to Nome, Alaskans put pen to paper and said, "we're ready for the Legislature to change their policies." And, rather surprisingly, it worked.

Seeing the wave of public support for these reforms, and knowing the initiative was as popular as Flattop on a nice summer evening (polling around 80 percent support), the Legislature responded. This spring, as session in Juneau came to an end, the legislature passed House Bill 44. Largely mirrored after the ballot initiative, HB 44 focused on achieving the major reforms Alaskans were calling for.

Wait, what? The Legislature voted to regulate itself? To cut off their own per diem? To strengthen their own conflict-of-interest rules? To reform lobbyist food and drink rules?

That's right. And this accomplishment is one you can squarely take credit for. Without your signatures, your pressure, your voices – these changes simply wouldn't have been possible.

So, what does this mean for that initiative you signed? By law, passing legislation that is determined "substantially similar" to a proposed initiative knocks it off the ballot. So that means we won't be seeing these reforms on the ballot this November. And, to be honest, we were slightly disappointed the people wouldn't get their chance to vote on these issues directly. However, HB 44 is a huge leap forward. It's a win for good governance, and work that we as a state can be proud of.

So, Alaska neighbors, HB 44 is your bill and your victory. By championing the ballot initiative, you made it possible to eliminate excess per diem, to strengthen our conflict-of-interest rules, and for more transparent foreign travel policies to be signed into Alaska law.

We take seriously the responsibility as elected leaders to continually create transparency to build trust with the public. Our goal as legislators should be to find ways to show the public that our work is focused on benefiting Alaska, not ourselves. HB 44 helps achieve that.
Take a bow, Alaska. You deserve it.

Jason Grenn (I- Anchorage) and Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins (D- Sitka) serve in the Alaska House of Representatives. They are co-sponsors of House Bill 44.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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