Bill boots game off state ballot

Voters would no longer be able to decide on wildlife management

Posted: Thursday, March 23, 2000

Wolves, moose and other animals could vanish from the voting booth in Alaska.

The state House of Representatives approved a constitutional amendment Wednesday that would prevent citizens from putting initiatives on the ballot dealing with wildlife management.

The measure must still be approved by a two-thirds vote of the Senate and a majority of Alaska voters before it takes effect.

The proposed change is a reaction to an initiative that passed in 1996 banning flying into an area and shooting wolves the same day. Another wildlife initiative, which failed two years later, would have placed restrictions on trapping. Rep. Carl Morgan, an Aniak Republican, proposed the amendment.

Proponents complain that such initiatives are decided on emotion, not sound science, and should not be on the ballot. ``Initiatives are very dangerous in wildlife,'' Morgan said.

Rep. Scott Ogan, a Palmer Republican, said he knew educated people who had voted for the ban on same-day airborne wolf shooting because misleading advertising confused them on the issue. ``A lot of people just didn't know what they voted on,'' he said.

Interest groups from outside Alaska, who don't understand rural Alaskans' reliance on fish and game for sustenance, put money into such elections, giving them too much influence, others said.

``I don't want people from outside our state weighing in on our wildlife decisions,'' state Rep. Mary Kapsner, a Bethel Democrat, said.

Opponents of the measure said there is not a problem so serious that the constitution needs to be changed in a way that takes away the public's right to vote.

Only about two dozen initiatives have ever made it on the ballot, and of those only two were on wildlife and only one of those passed the voters, Rep. John Davies said.

``I hardly think the record suggests there's an abuse of the process right now,'' the Fairbanks Democrat said.

The initiative process is important because it's among the checks and balances built into the system of government, he said. It gives voters power to make changes if the Legislature is unwilling to.

If citizens come up with a bad idea, legislators have three ways to correct their error, he said. They can pass substantially similar legislation and keep the idea off the ballot altogether. They can amend it to correct technical problems soon after it passes. And within two years of its passage, they can repeal it.

``There's checks and balances both ways,'' Davies said.

Wildlife management is not the only voter initiative that has a risk of being decided on emotion, rather than facts, he added, pointing to two measures on the ballot this fall: one capping property taxes and one legalizing marijuana.

However, those favoring the amendment said it should not be described as an attempt to limit the public's ability to have a say. In fact, before the constitutional change can be made, a majority of Alaskans have to agree to that.

``They get to vote on whether or not they get to vote,'' Ogan said.

Rep. Tom Brice agreed the initiative process is not a good way to make wildlife policy decisions. Before laws make it through the Legislature they have to go through a lengthy committee process in which bills are amended and compromises are made, the Fairbanks Democrat said.

Initiatives, on the other hand, can be hatched over by two or three people over beers on a Friday night and make it on the ballot, he said.

The process for making wildlife decisions will still be plenty public, said Rep. Reggie Joule, a Kotzebue Democrat. Citizens will still be able to have a voice in the process through advisory boards, the state Game Board and the Legislature.

Rep. Eric Croft, an Anchorage Democrat, said he understands that rural Alaskans ``feel besieged'' on wildlife management and other issues.

However, the change could leave rural Alaska in a worse position, he said, because any laws on wildlife management would have to go through the Legislature.

The Legislature, he pointed out, has refused to act on a constitutional amendment granting a rural preference for subsistence hunting and fishing. The public, on the other hand, supports giving rural Alaskans that preference.

If the amendment passes, he said, ``the only thing that can happen in wildlife comes out of this body.''

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