Bill lets Capitol staff work on changes to state constitution

Posted: Monday, April 02, 2001

Alaska legislators and their staff could use state resources to support or oppose ballot questions that are constitutional amendments under a bill that passed the Senate last week.

Senate Bill 103 was sponsored by the Senate State Affairs Committee, chaired by Sen. Gene Therriault, a North Pole Republican. The measure passed 17-2 and will be considered by the House.

Therriault noted that only the Legislature can place amendments to the Alaska Constitution on the ballot for a statewide vote. Therefore, he said, legislators need to be able to spread information on the reasons behind the proposals.

"If a question comes through the Legislature, I think that is appropriate," Therriault said.

Legislators should be able to use their offices and legislative staff for activities such as preparing speeches and writing newspaper guest opinions on the matter, Therriault said.

The bill would not allow legislators or staff to use government resources to solicit contributions to the cause.

Susie Barnett, staff assistant to the Select Committee on Legislative Ethics, said the bill would put into law what is common practice and what had been approved previously by the ethics panel. In 1998, the committee issued a formal advisory opinion saying it was OK for lawmakers to get involved with amendments being considered by voters.

"It's a recognition that legislators are contacted by constituents about constitutional amendments," Barnett said. "And if they respond and even write a letter, they won't be violating the ethics code."

Senate Minority Leader Johnny Ellis, an Anchorage Democrat, voted against the bill. Ellis said it would be fine if a legislator had an aide type up a speech. But there could be abuse, he said, such as aides working with political groups on campaign activities such as rallies.

The bill makes two other changes.

The measure states that commissioning a poll would not be considered a campaign contribution as long as it's limited to issues and does not mention a candidate. A political poll still would be considered a contribution if a candidate receives benefits from it.

Another section of the bill allows attorneys and accountants to volunteer their time to political parties or candidates without regard to contribution limits and reporting requirements.

Ellis said the provision worried him. Citizens are prohibited from donating more than $500 to a candidate and $5,000 to a political party.

"I'm more comfortable with paying professional people for professional services," Ellis said.

Therriault, though, said legal advice is needed if there is a close recount in an election. By that point campaign funds may be gone, and attorneys are expensive, he said.

An earlier draft of the bill contained a provision that would have allowed legislators and staff to use state resources to oppose citizen ballot initiatives. Therriault dropped that provision after citizens' groups objected that they should not have to fight against state money to pass a ballot initiative.

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