The Legislature waited until the bitter end of its first special session to do its most important job of the year, passing the state operating budget. Its members followed up immediately by engaging in the most rank hypocrisy of the year, deciding to thwart a hugely popular ethics bill to give themselves thousands of dollars apiece in per diem payments. It was a move to shock all but the most jaded of cynics, and Alaskans are right to be furious with them for it.
In 2017, Reps. Jason Grenn and Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins proposed an ethics initiative aimed at addressing conflicts of interest in the Legislature and attempting to provide an incentive to finish the Legislature’s business within its regular session — if not within the voter-approved 90-day limit, at least within the 121 days spelled out in the Alaska Constitution. The initiative would have prohibited legislators from acting to directly benefit themselves, their families, employers or major donors. It would also have cut off per diem payments (Latin for “per day,” money meant to defray living expenses while doing business) to legislators if they failed to pass the state budget by the end of the 121-day session. Not surprisingly, the initiative was wildly popular among Alaskans fed up with state spending on seemingly interminable special sessions — more than a dozen legislators claimed more than $40,000 in per diem payments in 2017. The initiative appeared to be heading for a ballot appearance and massive approval in 2018. Then the Legislature, seeing the writing on the wall, opted to pass the ethics law as a bill, House Bill 44, in 2018.
Under Alaska law, initiatives can’t appear on the ballot if the Legislature passes a substantially identical law prior to the election. That provision is meant to avoid duplication and also allow a faster path to getting popular initiatives approved. But there’s also a more cynical reason the Legislature often passes popular initiatives as laws before voters can approve them.
If an initiative passes, the Legislature isn’t allowed to repeal or substantially alter them to thwart their intent in the two years after their passage. But laws the Legislature passes itself can be altered or repealed at will.
The consequence of that difference played out in the Legislative Council meeting as the special session drew to a close June 13, with the group’s members voting 12-2 to pay themselves — and all other legislators — thousands of dollars in per diem payments for the special session, directly thwarting the intent of HB 44. Only two legislators — Reps. Delena Johnson and Tammie Wilson — voted against the payment. “I know what the intent of the legislation was … It not ambiguous in my mind,” Rep. Wilson said. She was right, and the rest of the room knew it. But it didn’t stop them from voting to pay themselves the per diem anyway. A particularly galling addition to the hypocrisy: A majority of the legislators who voted for the per diem payment also voted in favor of HB 44, opting to favor public accountability until the moment it hit them in the wallet.
This isn’t how our system is supposed to work. If a contractor bids on a contract, then fails to complete the project in the time allotted despite no issues besides those of their own making, that contractor doesn’t get an open-ended extension with more pay to do the same job. In fact, in many cases, they pay a penalty for not finishing on time. If a graphic designer is asked to come up with a logo in a month, they don’t get extra money when they fail to deliver — often, they get fired. The government isn’t a perfect analog for private projects, but our expectation of the Legislature — that its members do their job in the time allotted, and not receive extra money if they fail to do so — is enshrined in HB 44. Legislators opted to thumb their nose at that expectation, and Alaskans aren’t likely to take it kindly.
Legislators are likely to get an earful from the public when they convene for the second special session in Wasilla on July 8, and at this point, it’s hard to argue they don’t deserve it. Opting to work in the public interest only for as long as it’s convenient betrays the trust of the Alaskans who selected legislators to be their representatives.