Elected AG bill overruled by others

Alaska among five states that appoints top attorney

It is unlikely — albeit still possible — that lawmakers in Juneau will send a constitutional amendment before voters that would make Alaska’s Attorney General an elected position.

Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, is the primary sponsor of the resolution, HJR18. He told the Empire Friday that other bills such as the gas line legislation (SB138) and omnibus education bill (HB278) have taken precedence over the measure.

“We may be running out of time,” Stoltze said, adding, “It’s not that it’s not important, but as being the finance chair, I have to put my personal priorities behind.”

Alaska is one of only five states with an attorney general appointed by the governor, according to the National Association of Attorneys General website.

Forty-three states allow voters to elect the state’s top lawyer — in Tennessee the Supreme Court selects the attorney general, and the Maine legislature makes that call through a secret ballot.

“It’s having the people’s attorney — the attorney general’s opinion has the force of law — and it would improve a lot of the perceptions that the AG only works for the governor first and foremost,” Stoltze said.

Going to an elected attorney general wouldn’t be a first for Alaska, because the position was elected during the territorial days, Stoltze said.

“Now we have an average tenure of attorney generals of about 18 to 20 months,” he said. “We don’t have the stability we used to have prior to statehood.”

For Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake, the issue is one of preserving the system of checks and balances for the executive branch of state government.

“They should be there protecting the state’s laws, and when you have them there working basically for the governor as a cabinet member, they tend to work for the governor,” Neuman said. “I want to make sure we have as open and independent law interpretation as we can in the state of Alaska.”

Not all lawmakers support the measure, however, and because it requires changing the state constitution it would require a super majority in both houses; 14 in the Senate and 27 in the House. Stoltze isn’t sure it has the votes to pass.

“I’m not sure it’s broken enough to fix,” Rep. David Guttenberg, D-Fairbanks, said of the current appointee structure. “The problem is you want the most qualified person you can there, and if you elect him you’re going to have an attorney general getting campaign donations from lawyers.

“That political influence on that position is troubling.”

While the partiality of an appointed official could also be called into question, Guttenberg said, “at least you know where he’s coming from.”

Stoltze said the issue is one he would have to talk to individual legislators about to try and win their support, and he dismissed the notion of asking cosponsors to do that.

If there is not time for that before the Legislature’s scheduled conclusion in two weeks, Stoltze said he would try again next year as a member of the state Senate — if he wins the seat this fall.

“I’ll have a two-year start instead of a one-year start,” he said, referring to introducing the bill in the second year of the 28th Legislature. “That’s the likely scenario.”

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