House passes measure to ban wildlife iniatives

Posted: Thursday, March 23, 2000

JUNEAU (AP) -- Ballot initiatives dealing with wildlife would be banned if an amendment approved Wednesday by the House becomes part of the Alaska Constitution.

Rep. Carl Morgan, who represents a sprawling Bush district, introduced the measure in an attempt to stop initiatives such as the ban on land-and-shoot wolf hunting approved by voters in 1996.

Morgan, R-Aniak, contends that animal-rights activists push such initiatives without regard for sound biological management practices or for Alaska Natives who depend on wildlife for food.

''I'm offended with this because no consideration has been given to my people that do live on this land,'' said Morgan. ''That's their culture, that's their heritage, that's their history.''

The measure passed 29-9 after a lengthy debate over the public's right to weigh in on important issues through the initiative process. To become part of the constitution, the amendment must also pass the Senate with a two-thirds majority and a statewide vote in November.

Joel Bennett, a sponsor of the 1996 initiative, called the proposal ''mean-spirited grandstanding'' by lawmakers unhappy with legislation passed by the people, and predicted its failure at the polls.

''Most of these legislators know very well that the public is interested in having an opportunity to change the law if it so desires through the initiative process,'' said Bennett, who is the Alaska representative of the Defenders of Wildlife and a former member of the state Board of Game.

The House's Republican-led majority voted unanimously for the amendment, but the Democratic minority split. Those representing urban districts mostly opposed the measure, while the four rural Natives among the minority supported it.

Rep. Eric Croft, D-Anchorage, argued that the framers of the constitution had included the initiative process to give voters an out if they were unsatisfied with the polices of the Legislature and administration. He cited one framer who said the explosive nature of the public's will should be accommodated.

''We should trust these explosive people,'' Croft said. ''We don't really have a right not to.''

Several lawmakers countered that the measure merely gives voters the option of limiting the initiative process.

''They get to vote on whether or not they get to vote,'' Ogan said.

Rep. John Davies, D-Fairbanks, noted that the only two initiatives since statehood have dealt with wildlife. While the land-and-shoot ban passed, an attempt to outlaw wolf-snaring failed at the polls in 1998.

''I hardly think that the record suggests that there's an abuse of the process,'' Davies said.

Many who supported the amendment spoke about the influence of outside money that sometimes pours into initiative campaigns, and argued that such influence could foist harmful polices on the state.

In the campaign over the ban on land-and-shoot wolf hunting, about a quarter of the money used to push the measure came from outside Alaska, according to the Alaska Public Offices Commission.

''I don't want people from outside the state weighing in to our wildlife management decisions,'' said Rep. Mary Kapsner, D-Bethel.

House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz responded that the best way to keep Outside influence out of such campaigns is to tighten the state's campaign laws, which allow unlimited donations for initiative campaigns.

''If we really want to have Alaska elections controlled by Alaskans, we ought to do something about campaign finance reform,'' said Berkowitz, D-Anchorage.

If the amendment passes the Legislature and voters approve it, wildlife would join a short list of topics that are off-limits to the initiative, including appropriating money and setting rules for state courts.

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