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Slow pace of Alaska Legislature will likely bump citizens initiatives to November vote

A spawning sockeye salmon rests in the waters near the Eagle River Nature Center’s boardwalk overlook on August 22, 2017. (Marc Lester / AADN archive)

JUNEAU — The Alaska Legislature's delay in finishing its annual session is likely to postpone the vote on a pair of citizens initiatives to November.

The initiatives — one designed to boost protections for salmon habitat and the other aiming to promote government accountability — are currently scheduled for the Aug. 21 primary election.

But state law requires at least 120 days between the Legislature's adjournment and an initiative vote. That means the initiatives will be postponed to the Nov. 6 general election unless lawmakers gavel out by Sunday, according to the state elections division.

It appears increasingly unlikely the Legislature will be done by then.

Sunday was the 90th day of the legislative session — the limit set by a 2006 citizens initiative — but lawmakers have continued their work under a separate, 121-day limit set by the Alaska Constitution.

The initiatives' boosters, in interviews, said they're not worried about when the votes take place.

"I haven't really thought about it," said Anchorage independent Rep. Jason Grenn, one of the government accountability initiatives' co-sponsors.

But others in politics speculate that the timing of the initiatives could affect the outcome of the August or November elections. Democrats who refuse to endorse the salmon initiative, which is fiercely opposed by business interests, could face a backlash from some voters who place special importance on conservation, argued Tuckerman Babcock, the chair of the Alaska Republican Party.

"I think the Democrats would be well-served if it were on the primary ballot," he said.

The Alaska Democratic Party's executive director, Jay Parmley, didn't respond to a request for comment Monday.

The salmon habitat proposal would change the state's system for permitting development and activities that could hurt fish habitat; its provisions include establishing new public notice requirements and mandating that developers avoid or minimize harm to such habitat.

The government accountability initiative would require lawmakers to declare conflicts of interest at committee meetings, bar them from accepting food or alcoholic drinks from lobbyists and stop payment of their daily expense checks if they haven't passed a budget by their 121-day deadline, among other provisions.

It's still possible that neither initiative will appear on the ballot at all.

The Alaska Supreme Court is currently considering a court challenge to the salmon initiative's constitutionality. If justices side with Gov. Bill Walker's administration, the initiative would be rejected.

Meanwhile, the Legislature is considering a bill that mirrors many of the elements of the government accountability initiative. If the legislation, House Bill 44, passes, the initiative could be invalidated, based on a provision in the Alaska Constitution that renders an initiative void if "substantially the same" measure has been approved.

HB 44 has already passed the state House; an amended version is working its way through the Senate. If it passes the Senate, the House would have to sign off on the changes before it would go to Walker for his signature or veto.

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