Alaska lawmaker, in bid for public confidence, pushes tighter conflict of interest rules for Legislature

JUNEAU — A new state lawmaker has revived an old fight over conflict of interest rules in the Alaska Legislature.

Anchorage Independent Rep. Jason Grenn, who's in his first month as a legislator, is proposing measures that would make decisions about lawmakers' conflicts more visible — even if it wouldn't stop them from voting.

House Bill 44 and House Concurrent Resolution 1 had their first hearings Friday in the House Judiciary Committee. The measures would change state law and legislative rules by lowering the threshold for lawmakers to declare a potential conflict, and requiring a public, majority vote by the House or Senate before those lawmakers could vote on a bill.

That's more stringent than the status quo, which requires a unanimous decision to allow a lawmaker to abstain from voting. That means a lawmaker who's declared a conflict can be forced to vote if just one colleague objects.

The identity of the lawmaker who raises the objection — whether shouted or whispered — isn't recorded. And it's sometimes impossible to hear who objects from the galleries in the back of the chambers.

Grenn said in an interview that he introduced the legislation to boost public trust in the Legislature — something constituents asked for when he was campaigning door to door.

"I was hearing more and more about not trusting people to go down to Juneau," Grenn said.

Debate over the Legislature's conflict of interest rules has simmered for years, most recently coming to a boil in 2013.

That was when two Republican senators employed by ConocoPhillips, Kevin Meyer of Anchorage and Peter Micciche of Soldotna, took prominent roles in rewriting the state's oil tax system — and were in the majority for the Senate's bare minimum 11-9 vote for the resulting legislation.

Neither Meyer nor Micciche, who are both in this year's Senate leadership, responded to requests for comment on Grenn's legislation Friday; a spokesman said they were traveling.

But Republicans in both the House and Senate have been skeptical of attempts to expand the Legislature's conflict of interest rules. At a meeting with reporters Friday, Senate President Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, criticized what he described as "people who have singled out a particular industry" in the past — a reference to oil-and-gas industry workers.

"That's absurd," Kelly said, noting that other lawmakers work for labor unions or have spouses who are teachers. "They're totally tied into the state budget."

At Friday's committee hearing, members of the House's Republican minority peppered Grenn with questions about the bill. Rep. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River, asked if he was targeting oil and gas industry workers, while Rep. Chuck Kopp, R-Anchorage, wondered if an organized group of legislators could block a colleague from voting for political reasons.

"I think while we all want there to be good transparency in public process, one of the things that I would just like us to think about, collectively, is unintended consequences," said Kopp, who worked as an aide to Micciche last year before filing to run for the House.

Under current law, a lawmaker with an equity or ownership stake in a business or other investment has a conflict if it would be affected by legislation. Grenn's bill would expand that definition to any "substantial" financial interest — not just ownership — and it would also apply to financial interests held by a legislator's immediate family.

Grenn said that even under the expanded definition, he would still vote to allow Meyer and Micciche to vote on oil-tax legislation, and he said his proposal isn't an attempt to target them.

The significant change, he said, is that any questions would be openly debated on the House or Senate floor, with members forced to take a public stance on their colleagues' conflicts.

"I hope they agree with me that we need to add transparency to our public records and add trust," Grenn said. "This is not about keeping people from voting."

Other legislators — including some of Grenn's House majority colleagues on the judiciary committee — suggested that the bill should go further.

Oil company employees shouldn't be allowed to vote on tax legislation if it gives a substantial benefit to their employer, said Anchorage Democratic Sen. Bill Wielechowski. He's proposed his own conflict of interest legislation in previous sessions, though the Republican-controlled Senate didn't give his bill a hearing in the past two years.

Wielechowski, an attorney for IBEW Local 1547, said he doesn't think he should vote on legislation that would substantially affect his union employer either. The debate over conflict of interest, he said, has been politicized even though "it's not a political issue."

"I don't know why this is so controversial," Wielechowski said.

Members of Grenn's House majority coalition, which is mostly composed of Democrats, appear poised to quickly move his legislation to the floor. It's scheduled for a second hearing in the judiciary committee Monday, followed by another in the House State Affairs Committee Thursday.

Its path through the Republican-controlled Senate, however, is much less certain. North Pole Republican Sen. John Coghill said he thought Grenn's bill wasn't "unreasonable" — but he also said that it could be "problematic."

Its provisions, Coghill argued, could extend to lawyers, fishermen and nurses and create a "management problem" by forcing people to go through the debate over conflicts each time, and potentially blocking their votes.

The current system, Coghill said, "works pretty well."

He acknowledged that public trust in the Legislature is low. But that isn't because of any problems with its conflict of interest policy, he said.

"The confidence level is low because we're dealing with hard questions that quite often they don't like the answers to," he said.

Nathaniel Herz

Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. He’s been a reporter in Alaska for nearly a decade, with stints at ADN and Alaska Public Media. He’s reported around the state and loves cross-country skiing.