Senate OKs raising bar on initiative process

Posted: Sunday, May 09, 2004

JUNEAU Activists will have a tougher time getting citizens initiatives to ban bear baiting or move the state capital on the Alaska ballots under a measure approved by the Senate on Saturday.

But Alaska voters may have the last word in November if the measure clears a last hurdle in the Legislature.

The Senate approved a constitutional amendment to require groups to gather signatures from more areas of the state before the lieutenant governor can put their initiatives on the ballot.

Sen. Scott Ogan, R-Palmer, complained that too many wildlife initiatives, such as those to ban bear baiting or block predator control, are finding their way on the ballot.

And initiative backers don't spend enough effort mustering support for their causes in rural areas that are most affected, Ogan said.

''This enfranchises the less populated areas and makes it more inclusive,'' said Ogan, who voted for the measure, which passed 17-3.

The state constitution now requires groups to collect signatures equal to 10 percent of the votes cast in the last general election before a measure can be put on the ballot. They also have to collect at least one signature each from 27 of the 40 House districts.

Critics contend activist groups can collect most of their signatures from the Anchorage area for issues that the rest of the state may not support.

The constitutional amendment, which has to be ratified by voters to take effect, would not change the total number of signatures needed to get a measure on the ballot.

But it would require groups to gather signatures in 30 House districts that equal 7 percent of the votes cast in those districts.

The Alaska Outdoor Council, which has opposed many initiatives that restrict wildlife management in Alaska, supports the amendment.

But several groups spoke out against it, including the capital-move group Alaskans for Efficient Government and a group seeking to recall Ogan.

Myrl Thompson, head of the group ''Oganissogone,'' told a Senate committee the initiative process lets citizens act on issues the Legislature ignores and should not be made more difficult.

Anchorage Democrat Sens. Johnny Ellis, Bettye Davis and Hollis French voted against the measure.

French said the current system already requires initiative backers to visit a wide enough area of the state and should be left intact.

The measure could come before the Senate one more time before it takes effect. If approved, it would be on the Nov. 2 ballot.

In other action:

The House approved a bill that would bump off the November ballot an anti-nepotism initiative to change the way U.S. Senate vacancies are filled.

The initiative requires special elections rather than gubernatorial appointments and was brought by a group of House Democratic lawmakers after Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski appointed his daughter to his unexpired senate seat.

Since the bill does the same thing, it would remove the initiative from the ballot.

The state constitution protects a successful ballot measure from being repealed by the Legislature for at least two years. And initiative backers complained that the law could be repealed by GOP lawmakers next year.

But the House approved a bill Saturday that included a nonbinding provision that the Legislature would not do this. The same proposal is now before the Senate.

The Senate put off action on a statewide sales tax and a proposal that could allow the Legislature to use a portion of permanent fund earnings for government on Saturday.

Both measures were voted down overwhelmingly Friday, but kept alive by supporters invoking a legislative rule to call the measures up another day. The Senate is scheduled to return today.

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