Bill aims to curtail conflicts of interest

Legislation introduced Wednesday would tighten state laws on lawmakers’ ability to vote when a conflict of interest has been pointed out.

The tandem of legislation, SB172 and SCR15, would require majority approval for a lawmaker to cast their vote if they’ve previously noted a significant conflict of interest relating to a particular issue.

“This is something that’s bothered me for years,” said Sen. Bill Wielechowski, the sponsor of both pieces of legislation. “When someone abstains, there’s an automatic objection. There’s no serious thought put into it or serious conversations had about it. Let’s get on the record.”

Currently, a single legislator can object to another member abstaining and force that member to vote on the issue, regardless of the size of financial stake involved.

“If you have a genuine conflict of interest and think you shouldn’t vote on an issue, then you shouldn’t have to vote,” Wielechowski said. “To allow an anonymous whisper objection to force you to vote is just fundamentally not right.”

The proposed law also closes a loophole to include contracts with companies worth at least $10,000, and also adds a provision to include a legislator’s immediate family members.

Wielechowski’s office contacted the National Conference of State Legislatures about the issue, and the non-partisan group’s response indicated Alaska has the most lax laws in the country related to conflict of issue laws, the senator said.

“People are amazed at the process we have, but that’s a process we can change,” Wielechowski said. “The way we resolve transparency issues is on-the-record votes.”

A democratic press release about the bill pointed to Sens. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, and Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, voting on the More Alaska Production Act last session as a specific example of when lawmakers should not be allowed to vote on an issue.

“Alaska is facing unprecedented multi-billion dollar budget deficits because two ConocoPhillips employees voted to give their private employer billions of dollars for nothing in return,” Kay Brown, the executive director of the Alaska Democratic Party, said in the release.

Meyer said in an interview Wednesday that part of being a half-time legislature means all lawmakers will have to vote on issues close to them personally, and that preventing them from doing so silences their respective districts.

“I disclose where I work, and I represent about 36,000 people,” Meyer said. “For me to not be able to vote on oil taxes is like telling a district the size of the city of Juneau, ‘you’re not going to have a voice on oil tax issues.’”

Still, Meyer said every year when he comes to Juneau for session he is removed from the ConocoPhillips payroll, and that the company has “no more influence on me than anyone else.”

The veteran lawmaker isn’t necessarily opposed to the proposed legislation — if a condition is met.

“I’m perfectly fine changing the rules on what we vote for and can’t vote for — as long as it’s applied for everyone equally,” Meyer said.

He added that there is already a mechanism in place that ensures lawmakers vote on behalf of their district’s wishes and not their own personal agenda.

“If they didn’t like how I voted, they wouldn’t re-elect me,” Meyer said of his district. “That’s the true test rather than trying to decide if somebody has a financial interest or conflict of interest.”

• Contact reporter Matt Woolbright at 586-1821 or at matthew.woolbright@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/reportermatt.

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