Ballot props shouldn’t become state law

Tuesday’s primary election ballot includes a pair of propositions, both brought forward through citizen initiatives after similar measures failed to pass through the Alaska Legislature. The first proposition deals with increasing the amount municipalities may exempt when calculating residential property taxes; the second, which has attracted much more attention, would establish a new coastal zone management program.

While both measures were framed with good intentions, we don’t believe either one should be approved by voters.

* Proposition 1 would allow municipalities to increase the tax exemption on residential properties from $20,000 to $50,000. Doing so would require an ordinance approved by voters. The proposition originated with a group of Fairbanks civic leaders after similar proposals never gained traction in the Legislature. 

Supporters of the measure argue that the proposition doesn’t require the increased exemption, it simply gives municipal governments another tool at their disposal to formulate their own tax policy.

However, increasing the exemption becomes a shell game, shifting the tax burden either to other residential property owners, to owners of business and industrial properties, or forcing municipalities to increase the mill rate across the board to compensate for a loss in revenue. It also has the potential to hurt renters — frequently the people who can least afford changes to their financial situation. Further, municipalities throughout Alaska have different methods for determining the property tax burden of residential property owners. While an increased exemption might work well in Fairbanks, it could create more problems than it would solve in other areas. 

So, while the measure might give local government a tool for determining tax policy, it is not a fair tool and should be left out of the tool box.

* Proposition 2 would establish a Coastal Zone Management Program. Alaska’s previous program expired in 2011 after the Legislature failed to come to agreement on a bill extending the program.

While we don’t disagree with the merits of a good coastal zone management program — in fact, even opponents of Proposition 2 have said such a program can have benefits — a citizens initiative is the not the right way to enact such a complex and far-reaching piece of legislation.

We won’t quibble about the length of the proposition as others have — coastal zone management is a complex issue, and as such, legislation addressing the issue will also be complex.

But that’s exactly the reason that a coastal zone management program needs to be handled by the Legislature. Provisions must be vetted and debated. Compromise and negotiation should be part of the process. All stakeholders should be included in the discussion. The end product should be regulations that everyone impacted can live with.

Legislation by ballot proposition does not accomplish that.  

Will the Legislature take up coastal zone management if the ballot proposition fails? We can’t say for certain, but there are a number of legislators likely headed back to Juneau who are passionate about the issue. And we’d point out that in 2011, the House was able to craft a coastal zone management bill that won unanimous support, but was sunk after a compromise could not be reached with the Senate on its changes to the bill — the action that led to the current initiative.

The Legislature was unwilling to take up the issue in 2012, in part because of the pending ballot proposition and the requirement that it adopt a substantially similar measure, which would have limited lawmakers’ abilities to develop a good piece of legislation.

Alaska could benefit from a coastal zone management program, and we’d like to see the Legislature address the issue again. But it needs to be created through an open legislative process, not forced on the state through a ballot proposition.

 

In short: While well intentioned, neither proposition on Tuesday’s ballot would make for good policy.

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