JUNEAU, Alaska — Concerns about whether state lawmakers are serving the public’s interest or their own aren’t new in Alaska, but one first-year representative says growing pessimism about the political process means it’s time to address the distrust head-on.
Rep. Jason Grenn is helping lead a bipartisan effort to put a proposal on the 2018 ballot that would provide greater scrutiny and limits on lawmakers’ conflicts of interest, travel and pay.
Initiative language related to conflicts is similar to that contained in a Grenn bill that passed the House. It’s meant to provide clearer guidelines related to family members, outside employment and financial interests.
The independent from Anchorage isn’t giving up hope that the Senate will consider the bill, but says he’s pursuing the ballot question because the Legislature has stumbled in past attempts to create tighter conflict-of-interest rules.
Grenn sees the package as important to building trust, particularly when Alaskans are seeing their annual dividends from the state’s oil-wealth fund cut and political leaders have been weighing taxes to help address the state’s budget deficit.
“I have literally gotten a phone call or email every day since we announced this, people from around the state asking either where they can sign or how they can help collect signatures,” he said recently.
Addressing what constitutes a conflict is one thing. How it’s handled is another.
Under current rules, if lawmakers declare a perceived or actual conflict before a floor vote, they will ask to abstain from voting. Typically, one person will object, forcing the lawmaker to vote, anyway.
The objecting lawmaker isn’t noted for the record, and there is no debate on whether a lawmaker has a true conflict. That is part of the Legislature’s own rules, which it alone can change.
During a 2013 debate on rolling back state oil taxes, for example, two lawmakers who worked for ConocoPhillips but had taken a leave from the company during the legislative session asked to abstain from voting to avoid even a perceived conflict. The requests by Sens. Kevin Meyer and Peter Micciche were rejected, and the bill passed with the bare minimum number of votes needed.
In a nationwide review, the Center for Public Integrity and The Associated Press found that at least 76 percent of state lawmakers reported outside income or employment in 2015. While that might give lawmakers expertise in certain policy areas, many of those income sources are directly affected by the actions of the legislatures.
The review was based on an analysis of disclosure reports from 6,933 lawmakers in the 47 states that required them. It found numerous examples of state lawmakers around the country who have introduced and supported legislation that directly and indirectly helped their own businesses, their employers or their personal finances. The practice is enabled by limited disclosure requirements for personal financial information and self-policing that often excuses seemingly blatant conflicts.
In addition to his bill, Grenn unsuccessfully pushed a legislative rules change that would have required a vote on whether a member should be excused from voting. It died in the House.
If the proposed initiative is successful, he hopes there will be another attempt to change the legislative rules.
Jerry McBeath, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said existing state laws for disclosure are good. In addition to disclosures made on the House or Senate floors, lawmakers separately must file reports outlining financial details and relationships.
But he said enforcement under the Legislature’s rules is weak and “lacks something that appears to be more neutral or objective.”
He recommended an oversight body to review potential conflicts, determine their seriousness and remove legislators, if needed, from the decision-making process “even though it may affect the numbers and the outcome.”
Under existing law, a lawmaker may not vote — unless forced to do so by the Legislature’s rules — on an issue in which they personally stand to gain more than others in the same industry or field.
The legislative ethics act mentions avoiding even the appearance of impropriety “as an aspirational goal,” said Jerry Anderson, administrator of the legislative ethics committee. Lawmakers can seek opinions if they are uncertain about whether they have a conflict. People can lodge complaints if they think a lawmaker hasn’t disclosed a conflict, and the committee will consider it.
Rep. Chris Birch, an Anchorage Republican who voted against Grenn’s proposals, said the conflict of interest legislation carved out an exception for budget votes, which Birch found problematic. He said lawmakers who work with unions, for example, might have an interest in voting for capital budgets.
Birch also thought any conflict-of-interest bill should address lawmakers having their own political action committees, which raise money from special interests that often have business before the Legislature.
“I think for the most part, people are well-intentioned and willing to do the right thing,” Birch said. “But I think we need to be cautious that it’s suitably inclusive and doesn’t serve as a deterrent” to people running for office.