Municipal League warns of 'gag' initiative

Posted: Sunday, May 16, 2010

A ballot measure facing Alaska voters in August claims to be opposed to corruption, but Alaska Municipal League's Kathie Wasserman says it is actually an attack on citizen participation in their government.

Wasserman told the Juneau Chamber of Commerce Thursday that a ballot measure deemed the "anti-corruption" initiative isn't what it appears.

"This initiative sounds on the outside like something we'd all back," she said.

When you look inside it, she said, you find a New York-based activist using Alaska to carry on an anti-government attack.

The measure bars use of tax revenues for lobbying, and does so by limiting lobbying rights from an expansive list of people and groups.

Among those barred from lobbying would be the local governments that make up her organization, as well as a host of individuals who have even tenuous connections to government.

"This has some horrible repercussions," she said.

While the measure is formally called "An Initiative Creating and Alaska Anti-Corruption Act," the municipal group is calling it the "Gag Law," and has labeled its campaign as "Stop the Gag Law."

Wasserman said that the measure might not be so bad in Juneau, because Mayor Bruce Botelho could walk up the street to the Capitol to lobby the legislature on Juneau's behalf. But for other cities' officials, they'd have to spend their own money to travel to Juneau because they wouldn't be allowed to spend public funds to do so.

But, she warned, the city couldn't use its money to lobby against a capital move either.

"We would have no voice up in the Legislature about that," she said.

The initiative would bar the use of public funds for electioneering, and bars those holding public contracts from making contributions to campaigns.

The initiative makes it illegal for those holding contracts -- and the definition of who that would apply to appears expansive -- to contribute to candidates.

That's something that Wasserman said would likely prove unworkable in practice, because a candidate going door-to-door would have to know whether someone they accepted a $5 campaign contribution from might be the niece or grandfather of someone holding a public contract.

Included in the definition of contracts are collective bargaining agreements with labor organizations.

"It will hamper almost anyone in this room from taking part in government," Wasserman said.

The initiative was approved for the ballot by then-Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell in 2007, but Wasserman said that given Alaska's weak initiative laws, he had little choice but to approve a petition with enough signatures.

That's despite multiple legal opinions that have concluded much of it is unconstitutional, she said.

Wasserman said the measure was backed by Howard Rich, a New York multi-millionaire who has targeted states with weak initiative laws to back his libertarian views.

He then finds local sponsors to submit initiative petitions and hires signature gatherers to qualify the initiatives for the ballot, she said.

The three local sponsors in Alaska are all registered Libertarians.

"Let people know, 'please, don't vote for this thing,'" Wasserman said.

Attorney Ben Brown asked Wasserman what the law was expected to cost the state to enforce. She said a similar question had been asked of an initiative supporter at a recent Resources Development Council and he had not answered.

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