Alaska's citizen-led process for making laws should be protected

Posted: Thursday, October 07, 2004

Since Statehood Alaskans have had the constitutional right to adopt laws by placing initiative proposals on the ballot. Those who crafted our Constitution wanted to make sure citizens with good ideas could make a difference, and pass laws when elected officials are unresponsive the community's needs.

The people's right to direct democracy could be lost under a legislative proposal that you'll vote on in November. If passed, only wealthy corporate and special interests will be able afford to place initiative questions on the ballot. That's why we oppose this proposed Constitutional Amendment.

Alaskans have used their right to gather signatures and put initiative questions on the ballot responsibly. They've forced public votes on issues the Legislature's majority party has tried to avoid. In each case the voters were right, and their Government was out of step.

In 2001 then-Sen. Frank Murkowski's legislative allies wrote a partisan law to let him choose his own U.S. Senate replacement. Every Republican House legislator voted against an amendment that would have given Alaskans the right to elect his Senate replacement, and instead voted to give Gov. Murkowski the power to handpick his replacement.

Voters reacted angrily. Fifty thousand Alaskans signed to put an initiative on the ballot that, if passed by voters this November, will allow an election next time there's a Senate vacancy.

In 2001 and 2002 Alaskans asked the Legislature to increase a minimum wage that paid a full-time worker just $11,000 a year. The Legislative majority said no. Citizens responded by gathering enough signatures for an initiative to raise the minimum wage to $7.15/hour and, importantly, to require that this wage increase annually with the cost of living. In 2003 Gov. Murkowski and most members of his party eliminated the voters' cost of living adjustment.

In 1996 Alaskans demanded limits on the amount of money paid lobbyists and wealthy donors could contribute to legislative campaigns. The Legislature was forced to respond by adopting these donation limitations only after citizens gathered enough signatures to force the issue on the ballot.

In 2003 Gov. Murkowski and most of his legislative party members reversed this law, too. They doubled the amount wealthy donors could contribute to legislators, and made it easier for paid lobbyists to give money to, and hold fund-raisers for legislators and candidates.

Now some legislators want to re-write the Constitution to make adopting laws by initiative cost-prohibitive for all but the wealthiest interests.

Currently initiative supporters must gather signatures equal to 10 percent of the votes cast in the prior general election. To account for signatures the state will disqualify, roughly 35,000 signatures are needed to place an initiative on the ballot. It's taken us an hour to gather 10 to 20 signatures even on a busy street. The current requirement properly makes putting an initiative on the ballot hard work, but not impossible.

The proposed amendment adds a requirement that petitions also include between 600 to 900 signatures from 30 of Alaska's 40 legislative districts. Roughly 20 legislative districts don't have a single city, town or village with a population of even 10,000 people. Requiring citizens to travel by riverboat or bush plane to gather a small batches of signatures all over the state would cost tens of thousands of dollars in charter and hotel costs. A hotel in a rural town like King Salmon can cost $200 a night.

People who want a fair minimum wage, or who want to limit the influence of wealthy campaign donors, can't afford the prohibitive travel and hotel costs of gathering thousands of signatures off the road system.

Some rural legislators fairly argue that few initiative signatures come from rural districts. But in the end a majority of Alaskans, rural and urban, are asked to vote at the polls to decide if an initiative will pass.

Where people sign a petition has no bearing on whether an initiative passes at the ballot box.

While some reasonable rural signature requirement might be in order, the proposed Constitutional Amendment would effectively nullify our right to vote on initiatives. Alaskans should vote no on this proposal in November.

Harry Crawford and Les Gara are Democrats in the State House of Representatives.

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