My Turn: Right to petition belongs to state's citizens

Posted: Thursday, March 05, 2009

House Bill 36, also known as the Open and Transparent Initiative Act, is an attempt to tackle an enormous problem we have here in Alaska. Our initiative process is used as a way for special interests to maneuver around the lawmaking body to enact laws without regard for the public as a whole. The right to petition government belongs to the citizens of Alaska. It is imperative that the process be protected from abuse. HB 36 offers those safeguards.

Currently, initiative sponsors are not required to hold public hearings. However, the Legislature is required to hold public hearings on all bills that are voted on as a body. Most bills receive multiple committee referrals and spend hours being publicly vetted. Though bills passed by the Legislature and initiatives passed by the people have the same effect, they are not held to the same public hearing requirements. Mandating a proposed initiative go through a public hearing process is an essential element for developing sound public policy.

HB 36 requires that a standing committee review the proposed initiative. This allows the affected state agencies to come forward and express how the initiative will effect their operations. When a bill is in front of the Legislature, the affected state agencies come before the appropriate committee and explain the implementation of the policy. Initiatives that are passed by the people are law, and the agencies that have to administer those laws should be afforded the same ability.

Prohibiting initiatives that are substantially similar to a failed initiative says that the people have spoken. We have seen the same initiatives proposed year after year with a lack of regard for the public's will. If an initiative fails, the public has spoken. However, people's attitudes, beliefs and perceptions can change. That is why I think it is appropriate that failed initiatives be restricted from the ballot for one election cycle to save the state money, time and resources.

Signature gatherers are commonly paid on a per-signature basis. In Alaska, they are not supposed to receive more than $1 per signature. Twenty-four states have an initiative process, and many have banned the practice of paying per signature because of fraud. Petition circulators in other states have been caught using disingenuous practices to gather more signatures to receive a bigger paycheck. If petition circulators did not collect payment based on the amount of signatures, they would be less inclined to commit fraud.

Petition circulators are allowed to solicit signatures for more than one initiative at a time. This means that someone can have multiple clipboards outside the grocery store, shuffling them around while trying to convince you to sign their petitions. It is easy to confuse which petition was explained to you and which petition you have agreed to sign. Petition circulators should only be allowed to collect signatures for one initiative at a time, reducing confusion, deceptive practices and misleading information.

Unlike the current initiative process, HB 36 will go through many public committee hearings where it will be vetted, debated and amended. This is a chance for the public to weigh in on the bill, for lawmakers to ask questions and clarify issues of concern, for changes to be proposed, and many other aspects to be publicly debated so the best public policy is put forward. As a reminder, this is not required of initiative legislation. What you see is what you get, and unfortunately, what you don't see is what you get as well.

I encourage you to read the legislation yourself. Please form your own opinions based on the facts of the bill itself, rather than regurgitate information given to you by parties with their own agenda. HB 36 can be found at www.legis.state.ak.us/basis.

• Kyle Johansen is a Republican Representative and House Majority Leader of House District 1 in Ketchikan.



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