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1/23/2018
Point of View: Fixing the Alaska Legislature

By DAN ORTIZ
and JONATHAN KREISS-TOMKINS

We are two independent-minded legislators who represent the islands of Southeast Alaska. We work hard during the legislative sessions to try to balance Alaska’s budget, stop spending down Alaska’s savings, and to ensure that Railbelt legislators don’t run roughshod over coastal Alaska.

It’s as clear to us that the Legislature isn’t working very well. It’s enough to make you pull all your hair out — and in fact, for anyone who knows our shiny pates, that is exactly the case.

In response, we’ve lent our support and are actively helping gather signatures for a ballot initiative to institute some much-needed reforms in the Legislature. You’re going to love this initiative. It’s the public policy equivalent of sliced bread.

Before we talk about what it does, let’s talk about the problems it fixes.

When we first showed up in the Legislature, there were a number of things that just didn’t make sense.

Like why there's a culture of lobbyists wining and dining legislators at 30-dollar-an-entree downtown Juneau restaurants. Or why city or borough elected officials are required by state law to adhere to a far more rigorous conflict of interest standard than legislators in Juneau. Or why there are legislative trips to far flung, foreign countries for dubious legislative purpose.

Most of all, this infuriating cycle of the Alaska Legislature playing chicken with the budget and going to the brink of government shutdown year after year, resulting in economic uncertainty, pink slips, and untold stress on families and normal, regular people just trying to live their lives.

It has to stop.

We now have eight years of collective legislative service between the two of us. One of us has a committee chairmanship, the other serves on the influential Finance Committee. We have gotten to know Juneau and the Capitol fairly well.

None of what we just described makes sense to us, just as it didn’t make sense when we first showed up in Juneau.

We’d like to do our honest best to help make some positive changes to Juneau, and that’s what this initiative aims to help do.

The initiative ends an exemption that allows lobbyists to buy legislators unlimited food and drink. Legislators and lobbyists can talk and eat all they want. But legislators like myself can pick up our own tabs just as everyone else in the world does. It's a whole lot cleaner, ethically, that way.

The initiative restricts political contributions from foreign-owned corporations in Alaska's elections. The initiative reforms the standard for legislators declaring a conflict of interest. The initiative requires written and public disclosure of legitimate legislative purpose on any legislator's travel to foreign countries — to usher in a standard of transparency and public accountability.

And the biggie is that the initiative includes a "no budget, no pay" provision. In other words, if the Llegislature fails to pass an operating budget in 121 days, the period of time set forth in the Alaska Constitution for the Legislature to be in session, and if the Legislature is careening towards the precipice of government shutdown, legislators' per diem is cut off until an operating budget gets passed. No budget, then no pay.

The "no budget, no pay" provision will, at the very least, disincentivize playing "chicken" with the operating budget and the stress and shockwaves of uncertainty that reverberate through the Alaska economy when Alaska goes to the brink of shutdown.

All told, this initiative is a grab bag — a broad measure to improve standard procedures. It’s an honest attempt to make some much needed, long overdue reforms, and it’s just a start, not a silver bullet.

We’re pleased to announce that thanks to the efforts of volunteer signature gatherers in our districts and across Alaska, sufficient signatures were submitted recently to the Division of Elections to qualify this initiative for the 2018 ballot.

Unless something goes sideways, you, the people of Alaska, will have the opportunity to vote on this initiative later this year. We wanted to be sure to share the good news. And we hope you, like us, will vote yes.

Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan, represents House District 36 in the Alaska House of Representatives. Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, represents House District 35.