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Senate construction-budget boss says husband's job atop contractor group 'no conflict'

  • Author: Nathaniel Herz
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published February 15, 2015

JUNEAU -- As the state's $150 million capital and construction budget works its way through the Legislature, the new committee chair in charge of the measure in the Senate is married to the head of a leading construction industry group.

Colleagues of Sen. Anna MacKinnon, R-Eagle River, say they have full confidence in her ability to impartially co-chair the Senate Finance Committee, which has authority over the state's spending on capital and construction projects, just a few months after her marriage to John MacKinnon, the executive director of Associated General Contractors of Alaska.

In interviews, Democrats and Republicans said they didn't think Anna MacKinnon, 57, would let her marriage get in the way of her job. And they also downplayed the significance of her role in a year in which the capital spending is expected to be drastically reduced, with legislators trying to close a multibillion-dollar budget deficit.

"I think Anna (MacKinnon) actually is an excellent choice for that position," said Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, the Senate's minority leader. "I have full confidence in her personal integrity."

MacKinnon's colleagues picked her late last year as co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee, replacing Sen. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, who took over as Senate president.

MacKinnon is responsible for the committee's work on the capital budget, with its public works spending. The other co-chair, Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, oversees the operating budget, which pays for state agencies.

MacKinnon's position is a coveted one, because it grants influence over the capital budget's overall size as well as which construction and other projects are included in the Legislature's spending package.

But this year, Gov. Bill Walker has proposed a capital budget that's one-fourth the size of last year's, down to $150 million from $600 million.

"Some might say that I have the capital budget at the least opportune time, at least in the last decade," MacKinnon said.

In interviews, both MacKinnon and her husband said they draw clear lines between their personal and professional lives.

John MacKinnon, 62, described his wife as someone who "drives down the lanes" even when she's in an empty parking lot.

"We purposely go out of our way to even make it cleaner than it should be, recognizing that I don't know how any kind of a conflict could occur in this," he said. "It's just to be able to look ourselves in the face and pass the red face test."

Two members of the Republican Senate leadership described the pair's relationship as nothing out of the ordinary in a citizen Legislature in which many members have outside jobs.

"You could go through almost every room and find conflicts," Senate Majority Leader John Coghill, R-North Pole, said in an interview in the Capitol building. "I think the supposition something less than noble is going to happen is a little unfair at this point."

Conflicts have always drawn attention in the House and Senate, with particular scrutiny in recent years placed on oil company employees who have voted on tax legislation that benefited their employers. The state's legislative ethics act requires legislators to conduct public business in a way that avoids conflicts, "or even appearances of conflicts."

Former legislator Ray Metcalfe -- who has written that corruption "grips Alaska's Legislature" -- is leading a citizen's initiative campaign aimed at curtailing conflicts. He says it would have prevented lawmakers with oil industry ties from voting on an oil tax bill in 2013.

The MacKinnons' relationship is in a "gray area," Metcalfe said in a phone interview. But he added that Anna MacKinnon should nonetheless step down from her position.

"It does not rule out that she could have integrity and do the job with integrity," he said. "But integrity requires not only that she do the job with integrity. Integrity requires that she avoid both the conflict and the appearance of a conflict."

MacKinnon's relationship with John MacKinnon dates back more than five years, she said. The two met when she chaired the Anchorage Assembly and he was a deputy commissioner at the state Department of Transportation.

John MacKinnon started working at the contractors' association in 2008. The group's 640 members include a wide swath of businesses, from small construction and electrical firms to the state's largest oil companies and banks and unions -- virtually any organization that benefits from construction activity.

In his message in the group's winter newsletter, John MacKinnon stressed that "any significant pullback in capital investment by the state will send the wrong message to Alaskans." And a separate list of the AGC's legislative priorities includes four specific proposed projects that have received money from past capital budgets: a road to connect Juneau to the rest of the road system, the bridge across the Knik Arm near Anchorage, the Susitna-Watana dam, and a natural gas pipeline from the North Slope.

John MacKinnon said the group's focus goes beyond the capital budget. Its legislative priorities include other issues such as adjusting the state's workers' compensation system and environmental permitting process.

"We appreciate a healthy capital budget, but it's more issues affecting the construction industry," he said. "Our policy's very clear in that we support the overall economy."

The contractors' association conducts an annual trip to Juneau to lobby the Legislature, which this year was held Feb. 3-4 -- but Anna MacKinnon said her husband is not typically part of the contingent that visits her office.

"We try to make sure that there's a very bright line between anything that he does," she said. She added: "I'd appreciate if you could interview everyone who exits my office. It's not very bright when it comes to projects across Alaska, or the ability of the capital budget to do very much in individual communities or individual projects."

In addition to its annual trip to Juneau, the AGC also allows board members to hold political fundraisers at its facilities in Anchorage and Fairbanks, though at least three board members have to agree before one can be held and the group itself doesn't act as an official sponsor, John MacKinnon said. The AGC in Anchorage also hosted the Republican-led Senate majorities when they decided who their leaders and committee chairs would be after the 2012 and 2014 elections.

He said he's been listed as a sponsor of Anna MacKinnon's fundraisers in the past, though he said he couldn't remember whether she'd ever held an event at one of the group's facilities.

Anna MacKinnon's campaign finance reports from 2014 show she raised $19,500 from individuals and political committees connected to the contractors' group's members out of her campaign's $73,000 total -- not much more than the $17,500 that Kelly, her co-chair on the finance committee, raised from the same pool of contributors.

MacKinnon's counterpart in the House, Rep. Steve Thompson, R-Fairbanks, raised $11,000 from individuals or political committees connected to the contractors' group, though the total amount of money he raised, $44,500, was smaller.

Asked about the MacKinnons' relationship, Meyer, the Senate president, downplayed the potential for conflict because the size of this year's capital budget would be small. If Anna MacKinnon presents the Senate with an inflated capital budget, "we're going to reject it," said Meyer, who himself has parried questions about conflicts due to his outside job working for the oil company ConocoPhillips.

This year, in fact, MacKinnon has already declared that she will try not to grant legislators the pools of money they've been given to distribute within their districts.

Meyer and Gardner, the Senate Democratic leader, both said the public has the final say if it deems MacKinnon to be acting inappropriately.

"We have a citizen Legislature -- that's part of democracy," Gardner said. "The voters ultimately determine if someone's fit."

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