Alaska editorial: Lawmakers should rethink April election

Posted: Tuesday, February 20, 2007

This editorial appeared in the Anchorage Daily News:

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It'll be a mighty expensive no-decision. Maybe that's why some Alaska lawmakers are having second thoughts about an April special advisory election that would ask voters if the state should offer health benefits to same-sex partners of public employees and retirees.

It's only advisory because supporters don't have the two-thirds legislative majority to put a constitutional amendment before voters, so they want to try a popularity contest first to measure public support.

Blocking the benefits will take a constitutional amendment because the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that the state must offer the benefits out of legal fairness. Alaskans voted overwhelmingly in 1998 to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman. That means same-sex couples can't marry here. That also means that public employees with same-sex partners don't get the same benefits offered to heterosexual married couples. The court found that unequal treatment to be unconstitutional.

Lawmakers opposed to the benefits, Rep. John Coghill of North Pole among them, argued that the court sidestepped the will of the voters and exceeded its authority with the decision. Some wanted a showdown with the court.

Gov. Sarah Palin, while sympathetic to foes of same-sex benefits, wisely declined that constitutional mess. Instead, she followed the law and allowed same-sex benefit regulations to take effect in December, while at the same time signing the bill for the April advisory vote.

Meanwhile, enthusiasm for the vote has waned a bit.

Rep. Coghill has questioned the timing but still wants to go ahead with a vote. Senate President Lyda Green of Wasilla says her majority coalition may discuss whether to cancel the election. The governor says she will work with lawmakers on another course, if that's what they want.

Perhaps legislators are realizing it's a million-dollar public opinion poll dressed up as an election.

This isn't like the 1999 advisory vote that buried a proposal to use some Alaska Permanent Fund earnings to help balance the state budget. That was a purely political decision that did not involve the fundamental law of the land and equal-rights protection. The Supreme Court's benefits ruling does.

That leaves foes of same-sex benefits a straightforward path to follow if they're serious: They need a two-thirds vote of each legislative chamber to put a constitutional amendment before the voters.

If there's passion enough for that, let the Legislature try to summon the votes. If not, then let's not bother with a vote that doesn't count. Anchorage Rep. Mike Doogan and 11 of his colleagues have introduced a bill that would stop the special election. If lawmakers act quickly, they can pass the bill and save a million dollars.

Let's cut our losses at the $175,000 already spent on ballot printing and let life go on.

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