The Alaska Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that ballot language for an initiative to move the Legislature to the Matanuska-Susitna Borough is "potentially misleading" and directed minor changes to the wording.
Alaskans for Efficient Government, the group behind the session move, brought the lawsuit against the state and Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer in August 2001. It said the state's explanatory summary of the ballot measure, which is printed on the Nov. 5 general election ballot, was biased.
The ballot measure, if approved by voters, would move legislative sessions to the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and repeal part of the FRANK Initiative, a law passed by voters in 1994 to ensure that voters approve the costs of such a move. The acronym FRANK stands for Fiscally Responsible Alaskans Needing Knowledge.
The ballot summary written by the attorney general and approved by the Ulmer reads: "This bill would move all sessions of the state legislature to the Matanuska-Susitna (Mat-Su) Borough. If facilities fit for these sessions cannot be found, sessions would be held in Anchorage until facilities are available in the Mat-Su Borough. The bill would repeal the requirements that before the state can spend money to move the legislature, the voters must know the total costs as determined by a commission, and approve a bond issue for all bondable costs of the move."
Alaskans for Efficient Government contested the last sentence of the ballot summary.
In a 3-2 decision, the court ruled that the "past-tense phrasing - 'as determined by a commission' - can easily be read to mean that an existing commission already has determined the costs and that the initiative seeks to keep them secret."
The court also said use of the phrase "must know the total costs" describes the FRANK Initiative's purpose as a "beneficial imperative" and "hardly seems neutral."
The court's suggested revision would change the phrases "must know" to "must be informed of" and "as determined by" to "as would be determined by."
"I have to say that I am surprised and it doesn't seem like the decision makes that much of a difference," said Sarah Felix, the state attorney who argued the case.
Felix defended the state-certified ballot summary in Anchorage Superior Court last year, noting that the language of the last sentence of the summary was taken almost verbatim from the original 1994 FRANK Initiative ballot language.
Ulmer said in a statement released today that the court's suggested changes would be implemented.
"As for the majority's decision that suggests changes to the wording of the ballot issue to clarify its intent, I will see that the changes are implemented without delay," Ulmer said. "Those changes are relatively minor and should be easily accompanied within the 100-word limit imposed by law."
Ken Jacobus, attorney for Alaskans for Efficient Government, said he was pleased but surprised by the court's decision.
"I knew that we were right, but there is a wide discretion as to what language can be used," Jacobus said. "I didn't know if it (the state's wording) was inaccurate enough."
The lawsuit proposed changing the last sentence of the ballot summary to read: "The bill would repeal the requirements that a commission to determine the costs of moving the legislature must be created and the voters must approve a bond issue for all bondable costs of the move."
A dissenting opinion by Justices Robert L. Eastaugh and Walter L. Carpeneti called the group's proposed changes "unjustified" and noted that the changes suggested by the court's majority "appear, at best, to be mere improvements, not changes essential to remedy any alleged defects."
"The objections raised by Alaskans for Efficient Government, Inc., are unpersuasive," Eastaugh wrote.
Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at email@example.com.