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Untold reality of state's minimum wage debate

Initiatives can't be repealed for two years, but can still be amended

Posted: April 16, 2014 - 12:06am
Senate Majority Leader John Coghill, R-Fairbanks, left, speaks with Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, and Senate President Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, on the Senate floor last week.  Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Senate Majority Leader John Coghill, R-Fairbanks, left, speaks with Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, and Senate President Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, on the Senate floor last week.

Whether a minimum wage increase is approved by voters or lawmakers, the result will be the same: The Legislature will have the power to make changes.

Backers of the August ballot initiative are concerned the Legislature is taking up the matter so it has the ability to strip parts of the bill in future years, which they argue couldn’t happen with a voter-approved initiative.

Think again.

The Alaska Constitution states that an approved ballot initiative can’t be repealed for at least two years. The next line in Article 11, Section 6 tells a different tale than what the public and legislators have been led to believe: ballot initiatives “... may be amended at any time.”

Opponents of HB384, introduced by House Republicans to raise the state minimum wage, worry the bill is a precursor to history repeating itself and not the result of a genuine interest in the issue.

“For previously free-market Republicans to suddenly find God and religion and want a minimum wage increase is purely political,” Vince Beltrami, president of the Alaska AFL-CIO, told the Empire Tuesday.

In 2002, the Legislature passed a bill to increase the state minimum wage. Because the bill was substantially similar to a ballot initiative that year, the initiative was pulled from the polling box. The following year, lawmakers stripped a key component out of the new law.

Initiative vs. Legislation

This time around, the initiative’s backers have urged lawmakers to ignore HB384 so the increases are safeguarded for at least two years if approved by voters in the August primary.

“It would be interesting to have a redo of the House vote once folks realize that there really is not a benefit for those wishing for the initiative process to occur,” said Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna.

In the 1977 Alaska Supreme Court case Warren v. Thomas, then-Justice Roger Conner wrote, “the constitution thus vests broad authority in the legislature to vary the terms of an initiated law, after its adoption, by the process of amendment.”

He went on to call the ability a “check and balance against the initiative process.”

Still, according to the Alaska Attorney General’s office, that doesn’t mean lawmakers could “effectively repeal” the initiative by drastic amendment next year.

“It’s not black and white,” said assistant attorney general Cori Mills. “It has to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, but it can be amended in accordance to the constitution within those two years.”

A political game

Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, spoke against HB384 on the House floor Sunday, saying it offers less protection than the initiative.

“If 70 percent of voters support the minimum wage increase, and for it to keep going up annually — this Legislature will never have the guts to touch it,” Gara said Tuesday. “By knocking it off the ballot, voters never get invested in this, and they can just reverse it next year or the year after.”

Beltrami said the main reason the AFL-CIO opposes the legislative bill is because unions can — and will — file a lawsuit if a ballot initiative is amended. That approach won’t work if the Legislature amends its own bill.

“If they pass (HB384), there’s no question they can do whatever they want next year,” Beltrami said. “If it goes to the ballot, it’s a lot more murky, and that’s a better safeguard.”

Republicans in the House and Senate have said they will not support changing the law within the next two years, and the House attached a note to the bill stating as much.

“I will do all that I can to stop any change into the current bill that we passed,” House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, told reporters shortly after the Sunday night vote.

But Democrats and others who remember 2003 say those promises mean little to nothing because there is nothing binding about them.

“Republicans are willing to do whatever it takes to get this off the ballot,” said Rep. Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage and the House minority leader.

The claims of political motivations go both ways, however.

“It’s clear that there is a dual purpose to this initiative,” Micciche said.

In a recent interview with the Empire, Republican Gov. Sean Parnell said there isn’t a difference between the effectiveness of an initiative-created law and one proposed by the Legislature.

“If people are opposed to running virtually the same bill as legislation, then there must be a political motivation involved related to elections and driving turnout,” Parnell said.

Among legislators, there is a popular belief that a minimum wage initiative will bring voters out to the polls in August. Higher turnout could have large implications for certain elections and other items on the ballot, including a question that asks voters whether they want to repeal significant oil tax cuts passed last year.

Beltrami said having the issue on the primary ballot will likely benefit candidates the union supports, but that the turnout component is not why they want it on the ballot.

“I just don’t want them to mess with it (next year),” he said.

Why now?

The bill’s architects, including Chenault, have said their motivation is to carry out the will of the people.

Support for the bill grew after a March legislative poll indicated a substantial majority of Alaskans favor an increase to the minimum wage.

“The people want this, and that’s our job to do the will of the people,” said Sen. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage and co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee.

Opponents are skeptical of the timing of the legislation, which was introduced late in the legislative session and heard in committee only once before heading to a full floor debate and vote.

“I don’t think anyone here in the building really, truly believes that we should pass laws just because there’s an initiative on the ballot,” said Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage and the minority leader. “We see this as an election year ploy, and we’re not going to fall for it.”

That’s something members from both sides can agree on — just for different reasons.

“The proportion of Alaskans working at minimum wage is so low ... I think the whole issue is an election gimmick,” Micciche said. “But if people feel it’s important, then we should vote on the issue.”

Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage and the Senate Rules Committee chairwoman, said the fate of the bill will not be decided by the Republican leadership privately.

“The issue of minimum wage will rise and fall based on Senate support, or lack of support,” she said in an email.

Senate President Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, said the bill is vying for attention with other major issues — education funding, the capital budget, the state’s participation in a major gasline project — as the session winds down.

If Senate is to pass the bill remains to be seen, he said.

“It’s going to be close, but we haven’t done a final power check on that yet,” Huggins said, adding with a smile, “we can crank that up pretty quick.”

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James Coleman
1890
Points
James Coleman 04/16/14 - 06:55 am
4
13
Time better spent elsewhere?

The Democrats are doing this for votes to counteract the damage done by Obamacare. Raising the minimum wage a buck or two will not bring wealth and prosperity, it will produce higher prices and reduced hours. Why not spend time on education programs and the trades? With a skill minimum wage is not an issue.

Karl Ashenbrenner
2228
Points
Karl Ashenbrenner 04/16/14 - 08:29 am
7
4
Higher prices and reduced hrs

has been debunked by every study done by any reputable organization. The only ones that keep spouting that noise are the right wing talk radio and their ilk. As far as this being political...heck yes....if the ballot initiative were kicked off the ballot by a "substantially similar" legislative bill and it passed with overwhelming support, I believe not ONE legislator would have the guts to amend it next year. That goes away with a legislative bill. Beltrami and Gara hit the nail on the head, the legislature would not touch any ballot initiative that passes with overwhelming support. And for all of Chenault's protestations that nothing would be amended in the bill if it passes, his past actions bely that.

tom brice
20
Points
tom brice 04/16/14 - 09:00 am
6
1
Empire Got it wrong

I was hoping the reporter would have dug a bit deeper and actually read the case cited. If he had he would have noticed that there is a big difference between amending an initiative and "materially" changing one. Could, once the voters have passed the minimum wage initiative, the legislature amend the initiative and increase it to the level they just passed Sunday night? Probably. On the otherhand, Could they come back and strip the inflationary provisions of the bill and reduce the benefit as the story alludes, probably not, because that wouldnt be substantially similar and would be a materially significant deminishment of the initiative. And that doesn't even consider the political fact that the legislature is very hesitant to come in after a vote of the people and diss their will. Cmon Empire, dig a bit more, do your job.

Vince Beltrami
14
Points
Vince Beltrami 04/16/14 - 11:04 am
9
1
Disappointing coverage Matt

Okay Matt, I just read the story and here's some of the feedback you asked for.

The story seems slanted to suggest that ballot initiative backers may have had some other motive. We did not. I wonder if Sen. Micciche, who I admire, would have commented differently had you informed him that the case law is weak; that ballot initiative sponsors are completely convinced that if any of the previously stripped out provisions in 2003 were to be attempted to be "amended" out if it passed by initiative, that they couldn't possibly be legally defended as amendments, but would be tantamount to repeal, and therefore illegal.

Further, you don't linger very long on the absolute fact that if this were not on a ballot initiative, we NEVER would have seen a bill from the folks that now seem to have "gotten religion."

The notion that the House acted because the "people want this" is ridiculous. If that is the majority's motivation then where were the efforts to accept medicaid expansion, pass a marijuana bill, or repeal SB21 legislatively since over 65% of Alaskans polled last year supported its repeal?

The legislative effort is so disingenuous on its face, people should be embarrassed. If legislators would act with honor and integrity and not abuse the process entrusted to them by the people who elected them, we'd all be better off. Hopefully, the Senate acts with the integrity that Alaska citizens expect them to. Respecting the electorate and competing fairly and respectfully on the electoral battlefield is the most honorable action.

Judy Hodel
4719
Points
Judy Hodel 04/16/14 - 03:14 pm
5
2
Republicans Hijack Minimum Wage Initiative to Try Defeat Repeal

Pretty slimy to hijack one initiative to discourage voter turnout on the Repeal vote.

What are they afraid of? They've had a year to show us the "more production" in their $11 billion Giveaway.

They don't have to produce the oil themselves, just show us a graph or two on what that will look like as we give producers $11 billion dollars over the next 7 years.

If Department of Revenue lacks the skill to show us what more production looks like, they should hire consultants to do it.

Chenault could always repeal SB21 before the session ends if he doesn't want anyone to vote in the August primary.

If they can cobble together a minimum wage bill to thwart a citizens initiative, they can certainly repeal SB21 the same way.

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