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3/14/2019
Bill would cut conflict of interest provisions

By BECKY BOHRER
Associated Press

JUNEAU — New legislation would roll back conflict of interest provisions passed last year that some Alaska lawmakers see as too restrictive.

The legislative ethics committee has interpreted those provisions to mean that legislators can participate in committee and floor debate and vote on bills where they have conflicts, provided they declare their conflicts. But they can't have similar discussions in private.

Those sections of the law would revert to what previously existed, under the bill introduced Wednesday by the Senate Rules Committee.

Republican Sen. John Coghill, the committee's chair, said he doesn't see this as relaxing ethics laws but providing a reset to allow for a fuller conversation on the issue later.

"We still want (the) highest standards, best ethical behavior, and I think the rules that we had before got us there," he told reporters.

The law's sponsor, independent former Rep. Jason Grenn, said that's taking "the easy way out."

The law passed last year 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 the Select Committee on Legislative Ethics uses for "official action" includes development, sponsorship, advocacy of or opposition to a law, amendment, resolution or other matter affected by legislative action or inaction.

Some lawmakers see that as restricting their ability to represent their constituents or to use their personal or professional experience to help legislation.

Grenn last month said his intent was to force legislators to be more public about potential conflicts in committees and on the House or Senate floor. But he said the ethics committee's interpretation went far beyond his original intent.

Grenn said Wednesday he thinks a compromise can be reached that will address a public desire for stronger conflict of interest rules and will better define the law so as not to restrict lawmakers' ability to do their jobs.

"I think if they don't have the time or the energy to do this change now, then it needs to wait," he said, adding later: "Instead of just taking the easy way out of just repealing something, I think the public would demand that a good amount of work goes into this discussion."

The bill introduced Wednesday would not change other pieces of the law passed last year addressing such things as legislative allowances and travel and lobbyist activities.