Why Alaska needs a 'citizen legislature'

Posted: Wednesday, August 29, 2007

I don't usually write about politics, but as an old legislator who served in the Alaska House of Representatives and the state senate let me add my two cents' worth.

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(To date myself, when I was first elected to the Alaska Legislature in the 1960s, the Speaker of the House was Mike Gravel, the fellow now running for the presidency of the United States.)

A story from the July 25 issue of the Juneau Empire declares, "The Legislative Ethics Committee decided Rep. Jay Ramras, R-Fairbanks, behaved improperly when he used his position as a lawmaker to advocate for cruise ship companies with which he does business. Ramras, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, sponsored House Bill 222, which would have financially benefited cruise ship companies."

Let me ask a few questions about other interest groups.

What about a fisherman who serves in the Legislature? Is he or she never supposed to write a piece of legislation on fisheries, which might benefit him or her?

Some even advocate not letting people vote who have any personal ties with the subject.

Is a school teacher never supposed to work on educational matters?

Is a lawyer never to be allowed to work on matters affecting the Alaska Bar Association?

Is a mining engineer from Green's Creek or a gold dredging outfit in Nome never supposed to participate in mining laws?

It seems we lose a lot if this is the road we go down. But perhaps the only taboo subjects will be oil and tourism.

With the fear of censure, it seems to me we smother the expertise of the people elected to office and diminish the scope and abilities of a citizen legislature. Of course, there should be common knowledge of the background of a man or woman making a case for a particular bill.

The worst result in my opinion is a legislature comprised of people with little experience, with little record of accomplishment, or with no working life at all. Then we would have a body composed of those whose chief claim to fame is serving consecutive terms in the legislature.

I once was at a party at the Baranof about ten years ago, and a legislator from up north told me that legislating was the most exciting, wonderful thing he had ever done. I responded, perhaps a trifle unkindly, that then he hadn't done many interesting things in his life.

There was a time in our history when people did not typically make a career of politics. They served a term or two, and then went back home. The great president Abraham Lincoln served a single term in Congress. This experience has been restored in some jurisdictions such as the Juneau Borough Assembly, where a person can only serve three consecutive terms before letting others take a turn.

•Lifelong Alaskan Elton Engstrom is a retired fish buyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70) who lives in Juneau.

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