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By BECKY BOHRER
JUNEAU — Alaska state Sen. Shelley Hughes withdrew a health care bill she's been working on for more than two years and declined meetings on health care policy to avoid running afoul of new ethics rules she and other lawmakers see as too restrictive.
The ethics law passed last year details circumstances under which a lawmaker would have a conflict and limits what action the lawmaker can take if he or she has one.
Under the legislative ethics committee's interpretation of the law, legislators can participate in committee and floor debate and vote on bills where they have conflicts, as long as they declare those conflicts. But they can't have similar discussions in private with fellow lawmakers or anyone else.
The bill's sponsor said that goes far beyond his original intent, and he and others are looking at possible changes.
The law bars legislators from taking or withholding official action or exerting official influence that could substantially hurt or help the financial interests of an immediate family member; the employer of a lawmaker or their immediate family; someone with whom a lawmaker is seeking employment; or someone from whom the lawmaker or an immediate family member has made more than $10,000 over the prior 12 months.
The definition used by the Select Committee on Legislative Ethics for "official action" is broad, including development, sponsorship, advocacy of or opposition to a law, amendment, resolution or other matter affected by legislative action or inaction.
Hughes said the law prevents her from discussing health care policy with her husband, a physician assistant.
In a speech to colleagues, Hughes said she withdrew her bill aimed at lowering health care costs because her husband and the clinic where he works could be financially harmed by it, and that was seen as a conflict.
Ethics laws should keep lawmakers from manipulating the system for their own gain, Hughes said.
"But when the law prevents us from drawing from our own experience ... and from the knowledge that we gain from living with the people we love, it needs to be fixed," the Palmer Republican said. "When the law prevents us from working in the best interests of the people we serve ... to address the problems they face, the law needs to be fixed."
Lawmakers with conflicts can have general discussions in private that avoid specifics of pending legislation or that aren't used to develop legislation related to their conflict, legislative ethics committee administrator Jerry Anderson said.
But, some lawmakers worry, if the seed for an eventual bill is sown during a general conversation, could that be a violation? That's a realistic concern, Anderson said.
Senate Majority Leader Mia Costello said legislators are erring on the side of caution and in some cases declining meetings.
The state does not have a full-time Legislature. Some lawmakers have other jobs, including attorneys, fishermen and a doctor. Some also have working spouses.
Costello is an Anchorage Republican who flies, is married to a commercial pilot and represents a district that holds Alaska's largest commercial airport. In a floor speech, she said she intended to introduce a bill that would have given the Legislature approval of certain aviation-related fees, but didn't because of the new law.
"Everything we do, we're wondering, can I do that? Can I talk to this person?" Costello said in an interview, adding later: "We don't want to overreact, either. I don't think we are doing anything but trying to figure out right now what this actually means."
Former Rep. Jason Grenn, who sponsored the ethics law, said he intended for it to force legislators to be more public about potential conflicts in committees and on the House or Senate floor — and didn't intend to delve into private meetings.
"When it comes to private discussions, you have to have some level of trust with our elected officials," Grenn said.
The ethics committee's interpretation acts to "kind of kick common sense out the door," the Anchorage independent said. He lost his re-election bid in November but said he's spoken with current legislators about possible revisions.
Grenn said the aim was public transparency, not trying to address any potential corruption that other laws or rules already address.
Senate Democratic Leader Tom Begich, who serves on the ethics committee, cautioned against "over-interpreting" the new law and said legislators with questions can check with Anderson's office.
Begich is open to changes that clarify the law but not a wholesale rewrite.
The Legislature needs to find the right language "to ensure that we protect the right of the public to have legislators with integrity on one hand and on the other hand protect the right of the public to have access to the expertise of the people they elect," he said. "That, believe me, is a fine line, and we must find it."