Empire Editorial: Full-time politicians aren't the answer to Alaska corruption

Posted: Sunday, January 28, 2007

Alaskans aren't simply galled that some state leaders appear to have taken advantage of their offices to fatten their bank accounts. They're upset that when someone acted to rein these people in, they found out state laws permit this. Or the laws are too muddy to make a clear call on the case.

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Just how to clean up the state's ethics laws is one of the most pressing issues before the Alaska Legislature this session. Some legislators have suggested solving the problem by switching to "professional lawmakers," who don't earn any income outside of their legislative pay.

California does just that, paying its full-time lawmakers more than $100,000 a year, compared to the Alaskans' annual pay of $24,000, plus per diem and expense allowances.

Such a system might eliminate some forms of corruption, but the state would lose too much by giving up its citizen lawmakers.

Much of the idea behind having citizen legislators is that they participate in the democracy they serve and are not distant bureaucrats out of touch with the ways most Alaskans make a living.

Besides, lawmakers have numerous ways to earn a livelihood. But far too many get involved in the nebulous job that's particularly susceptible to abuse - "consulting" for companies that stand to gain from legislative action. What the state really needs are clear, tough laws that keep legislators from using their positions to put extra cash in their pockets.

Abandoning the citizen lawmaker concept is particularly ridiculous considering that voters decided last year to trim legislative sessions to 90 days. Preventing legislators from earning outside income would mean the state would have to pay them even though they're not doing legislative work much of the year. Or, if the state paid them based on the amount of time they actually worked, lawmakers hardly would be earning enough to live on. Talk about a real recipe for turning people into crooks.

And abandoning citizen lawmakers does not take into account that legislators are not the only public officials who can be tempted to make a buck off their office.

The state still needs laws to close what is being called the "Renkes Loophole." An independent review found that although former Attorney General Gregg Renkes represented the state in negotiations with a company in which he owned more than $100,000 in stock, his actions were not illegal.

The real solution to the ethics problem is to come up with laws that require full disclosure of income by public officials and limit them from acting on issues in which they have a conflict of interest. The state also needs to ban gifts from lobbyists, as Gov. Sarah Palin has proposed.

The last thing Alaska needs is to jack up its costs by hiring full-time politicians as lawmakers. What it really needs are tougher laws so that when a public official acts like a crook, it's actually illegal.

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