Open meetings, ethics bill on fast track
JUNEAU - Lawmakers are close to approving legislation that generally would put into law their current practice of meeting behind closed doors to talk about political strategy and some other matters.
The bill also would prevent people who file an ethics complaint against a lawmaker from talking about it unless the committee finds probable cause that a violation occurred. If the person discussed the complaint, it would automatically be dismissed.
House Bill 563 was introduced Tuesday and is scheduled for a vote Friday. A similar bill is pending in the Senate.
Justin Roberts, co-founder of Alaska Common Cause, said the bill was improved in a late-night House Judiciary Committee meeting Wednesday and could open some meetings that are now closed.
There are still some problems with the bill, but it's better than having no rules, he said.
"This says whenever you have a meeting and you talk about legislation, it has to be open unless you're talking about political strategy," Roberts said.
The bill defines a number of things as strategy, including scheduling of bills, House-Senate relations and "discussion of issues in the context of strategy."
Electronic voting, nepotism bill on tap
JUNEAU - New touch screen voting machines that have gained popularity elsewhere after the hanging chad fiasco of the 2000 Florida presidential election are under scrutiny by the Alaska Legislature.
Some lawmakers here want the ATM-style machines to be shelved until they can produce a paper trail after technical glitches occurred in other states.
"In the end, paper works best," said Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage. "The voter can see it after they vote and you can use it for a recount. These new machines don't let you do either."
Alaska has used an AcuVote optical scan system since 1998 to quickly read paper ballots, which can be verified by hand in a recount. But the state Division of Elections plans to use a few of the new touch screen voting machines in the 2004 elections, said director Laura Glasier.
Before other states began reporting problems, Alaska election officials bought 100 machines to allow blind and disabled voters to cast ballots in privacy, Glasier said.
Federal law requires that each of the state's 439 precincts have them available for disabled voters in 2006.
Gara's bill would require each machine to produce a paper copy of ballots that election officials could use later in the event of a recount.
The Senate Finance Committee approved the measure, which has passed the House, to send it for a possible floor vote.
In other legislative action:
Senate Republicans were unable to muster the two-thirds vote needed to change Alaska's public interest litigant rules that allow some groups to recoup attorneys fees after they've sued the government. The Senate voted 12-8 along party lines for the measure, which was short of the necessary 14 votes needed to make the court change.
House and Senate Republicans are at loggerheads over a bill to change the way U.S. Senate vacancies are filled and derail an anti-nepotism ballot initiative backed by some Democratic lawmakers.
The initiative, which began after Gov. Frank Murkowksi appointed his daughter Lisa to his unexpired Senate seat, would require a special election for future vacancies.
Barrow gives up in pull-tab fight
ANCHORAGE - The Native Village of Barrow has given up in its fight with the state over getting a permit for a pull-tab operation.
Village President Percy Nusunginya said the federally recognized tribe of about 2,000 does not have money to hire lawyers for a court fight. However, the village feels the state's actions were illegal and violated its rights of tribal sovereignty, he said.
The Native village settled the case last month by agreeing to get a state gambling permit and forfeit 2,500 pounds of pull-tabs.
In exchange, the state agreed not to lodge criminal charges for gambling that may have occurred before Alaska State Troopers raided the operation and shut it down last June. It also agreed to return office equipment used in the pull-tab operation.
Alaska State Troopers on June 30, 2003, used a search warrant to shut down the operation, seizing games, cash, records and equipment. The state contended that the pull-tab operation was illegal because the last time the village had a state gaming permit was in 1999.
The pull-tab operation was a way to get a few dollars to the village's poorest residents so they wouldn't freeze in the winter, Nusunginya said. He estimates unemployment in the village at about 75 percent.
State prosecutors said they just wanted the Native Village of Barrow to get the necessary permit to run the operation.
The Native Village of Barrow was issued a renewal permit on Feb. 23. It paid $50 for the permit, said Jeff Prather, gaming group supervisor with the state Department of Revenue.
Richard Svobodny, senior assistant attorney general, said the issue was one of fairness. He said there were five other pull-tab operations in the Barrow area that had the necessary permits.