Alaska editorial: Alaskans will have to force earmark reform

Posted: Thursday, August 09, 2007

Some critics assailed the ethics reform bill that Congress just passed because they said it weakened the rules on disclosing who sponsors special-interest earmarks. Quietly tucked into larger, more complex legislation, earmarks typically benefit a particular project, company, community or organization, often those with special political influence.

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It's true that letting the Senate's leader determine what is or is not an earmark could gut the power of the reform. Nonetheless, the change, combined with today's public notoriety associated with earmarks, should help limit abuses. Earmarks would have to be publicly disclosed, including the sponsor's name, 48 hours in advance. Sponsors also have to attest that they do not get any special benefit from their action.

That federal rule will be a vast improvement over how earmarks are handled in the Alaska Legislature. This year's capital budget had hundreds of earmarks, including many that popped up at the last minute. The flood of underscrutinized spending helped lead Gov. Sarah Palin to veto $231 million from the capital budget.

Gov. Palin and the public could pressure the Alaska Legislature to pass a law cracking down on earmarks, but in practice it might well be a pointless exercise.

Legislators are free to turn around and ignore the anti-earmark rules with impunity. Alaska courts won't enforce the Legislature's own procedural laws against the Legislature in deference to the constitutional separation of powers. (That's why the Legislature was able to ignore the state's open-meetings law for years. Eventually, lawmakers voted to exempt themselves from the law altogether.)

To give courts enforcement power on earmarks would take an amendment to the Alaska Constitution. That amendment might say:

"No appropriation may be signed into law unless the proposed item appears in a bill introduced and published at least 30 days before the budget is passed. Appropriations for emergencies and disasters declared by the governor are exempt."

Such an amendment would give courts the power to strike down earmarks and other dubious appropriations that pop out at the last minute.

There's only one catch: Any constitutional amendment limiting earmarks has to pass each house of the Legislature. By a two-thirds vote, no less. Voters cannot bypass the Legislature and amend the constitution by initiative. A relative handful of legislators can strangle any constitutional amendment.

That's why Alaska has no enforceable open-meetings rule for the Legislature. And that's why it will take unrelenting, heavy pressure from Alaskans and Gov. Palin to produce any enforceable earmark reform in Juneau.

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