Special session votes should be made public

Posted: Tuesday, August 05, 2003

Senate President Gene Therriault and House Speaker Pete Kott need to be reminded that the public has great interest in knowing the positions of its individual legislators. The two leaders have chosen to keep secret the votes of Senate and House members on a request by Democrats to hold a special session to consider overriding the governor's veto of the Longevity Bonus Program.

State law has forced the leaders to conduct the poll, which is under way, because Democrats submitted the required number of member signatures in requesting it.

Knowing how senators and representatives vote on the request for a special session is important in that it will put them on record as either supporting the governor's veto of the Longevity Bonus or opposing it. The Legislature put the bonus in the 2004 budget, rejecting the governor's initial decision to delete it. The governor responded with his veto.

The politicking behind the end of the bonus program is intense and in some regards distasteful. Democrats know they do not have enough votes to call a special session, let alone to override the governor's veto. It would appear they want only to make Republicans look bad.

Democrats hope to show that any Republican who voted to put the Longevity Bonus back in the budget but who fails to support a special session request is somehow privately agreeing with the governor's immediate end of the program and is insensitive to the financial needs of seniors. That's not fair. The Senate did pass a bill, created with the help of the AARP, that phased out the bonus over five years. All but one of 12 Senate Republicans voted for this bill. In the House, Democrats had a chance to assure passage of this phaseout, but not one joined the 13 Republicans who favored its approval. The full Legislature, with Democratic cooperation, could have passed this extended phaseout and sent a clear message to the governor, who opposed the bill.

The arguing over the merits of the Longevity Bonus is likely to continue, with each side having legitimate points. What shouldn't be at issue, though, is the public interest in how legislators vote in the special session poll a poll that is, though being conducted for no more than political gain, a legitimate act under state law.

President Therriault and Speaker Kott have rejected a July 18 legal opinion from the Legislature's own attorneys that, while not definitive, recommends release of the individual votes.

''The law is not clear, and legitimate arguments can be made on both sides, but I believe that the better position is that the votes are public,'' begins the memo from attorney Pam Finley.

The legal opinion goes on to note the ''constitutional ramifications'' of the poll whether to call a special session and says that ''the better view is that the vote is a record of the body'' and not of individual members and therefore would be subject to the state's public records act.

Some precedence exists for making the votes public.

The Legislature called itself into special session in 1985 and 1992 governors have called legislators into session more than a dozen times and in each case official legislative journals show votes of individual members. Those earlier sessions, however, were about issues less divisive than the Longevity Bonus.

And that's the point: It is wrong for legislative leaders to keep the results of a poll secret just because they think the public cannot interpret the politics involved or because the media might misrepresent or poorly report the outcome. Alaskans should be wary of legislators deciding what the public can and cannot know.

Our own poll

Because Senate President Gene Therriault and House Speaker Pete Kott have decided against making public the votes of legislators on the special session poll, the News-Miner has conducted its own survey. Legislators were asked whether they favored holding a special session to consider overriding the governor's veto of the Longevity Bonus Program.

The newspaper began its survey on Friday, July 25, and made several efforts to contact legislators.

Each vote was provided to the newspaper by either a legislator or an aide to the legislator. In some cases, legislators could not be reached by the newspaper and their aides did not know the vote. Some legislators declined to provide their vote. To those who did, thank you.

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