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Legislature misses initiative hearing timeline

Posted: February 25, 2014 - 8:19am

JUNEAU — A 2010 state law aimed at providing the public with more information surrounding ballot initiatives called for legislative hearings on certified initiatives within 30 days of the start of session.

That never happened this year.

The law calls for the lieutenant governor to hold hearings around the state at least 30 days before an election on initiatives scheduled to appear on the ballot. But it also calls for a legislative committee selected jointly by the presiding officers of the Alaska House and Senate to hold at least one hearing on initiatives that the lieutenant governor has determined to be properly filed within 30 days after the start of a session preceding the election.

Last Wednesday marked the 30th day of this session.

The legislature’s top attorney, Doug Gardner, said Monday that when laws address legislative procedure, it is up to the Legislature to decide how to implement those laws.

Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell in December certified an initiative that would require legislative approval for a large-scale metallic sulfide mining operation within the watershed of the Bristol Bay Fisheries Reserve. That action came with a notice of proper filing. The news release announcing the certification, dated Dec. 23, also included links to a letter to House Speaker Mike Chenault and Senate President Charlie Huggins, notifying them.

Signatures were turned in before the start of the legislative session on two other proposed initiatives, related to legalization of recreational marijuana for those 21 years of age and older and raising the state minimum wage. The marijuana initiative was deemed properly filed by Treadwell last week, according to Division of Elections Director Gail Fenumiai. The minimum wage proposal has met the required threshold for signatures but awaited final certification.

“I think it probably was something that was more overlooked than anything else,” Chenault said of the legislative hearing provision.

He said he supports such hearings as a way to help inform the public but could not say for sure if they would still be held.

“I shouldn’t say no because that could happen,” he said. But Chenault, R-Nikiski, said he hadn’t heard much conversation about the current slate of ballot measures except for the referendum on the oil tax system. Referenda currently don’t fall under the 2010 law, though a bill is pending that would add them. Under that bill, as currently proposed, the legislative hearing provision would not apply to the oil tax referendum but the provision regarding hearings organized by the lieutenant governor would.

Messages seeking comment also were left for Huggins.

Senate Majority Leader John Coghill, R-North Pole, on Friday said the legislative hearing process would start with a letter to the presiding officer from the lieutenant governor. He said he could not say what happened in this case. “All’s I can tell you is, I don’t know,” he said.

In 2012, the first initiative to be successfully introduced under the new law sought to re-establish a coastal management program in Alaska. The program had lapsed in 2011 after several failed attempts by lawmakers to save it.

Supporters of the proposed coastal management initiative turned in the signatures they had gathered to try to get the measure on the 2012 ballot at the start of the legislative session that year. A joint legislative hearing was held in early February, about a month before Treadwell issued a notice of proper filing, formally certifying it.

Gardner, who is director of Legislative Legal Services, would not speak to past practices. Asked if the Legislature had to hold hearings, Gardner said he wouldn’t give a yes or no to that, again saying the Legislature will have to decide how it wants to address and implement the law.

He said it “certainly would not be unreasonable for the Legislature to wait until all of the initiatives have been addressed, especially given the timing, in order to decide how to move forward.”

He noted that Monday marked the deadline for filing personal legislation; after that, only committees can introduce bills or resolutions. The Legislature can pre-empt initiatives by passing substantially similar legislation. As of late Monday afternoon no bills had been introduced — or read across in the House and Senate — related to any of the initiative topics.

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