Tips for keeping our political house clean

Posted: Thursday, September 27, 2007

"To see politics come to this shambles was very disheartening," juror Susan Pollard told the Anchorage Daily News this week after the jury found former state Rep. Pete Kott guilty of federal bribery, extortion and conspiracy charges.

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I think most Alaskans share Pollard's sentiment. Earlier this summer, a separate jury convicted former Rep. Tom Anderson on similar charges, and all signs point to more indictments coming.

We can thank the feds for the deep clean, but it's Alaskans' job to ward off a return to the ethical squalor of the Veco era.

Last session's ethics reform bill, curbing the freebies on which some legislators subsist, restricting outside employment and expanding disclosure requirements and oversight, was a good start. But it's not enough.

Here are some things the bill didn't do:

Raise legislators' pay.

I mean significantly - and in exchange for tight restrictions on legislators' outside employment.

Alaska's "citizen legislature" is a nostalgic ideal whose time has past. How many jobs allow a person to take three or four months off every year, plus more time off for the increasing possibility of special sessions and other legislative business?

The difficulty of holding down a regular job makes contract work appealing for many legislators. And guess who's offering the contracts - the same corporate interests, unions, hospitals and non-profits that have a vested interest in the legislative process.

Better to ban any remotely questionable outside work, and pay legislators a full salary to be fully committed to the public.

Provide public campaign funding.

The same basic argument applies. Do we want legislators beholden to the public, or to whoever bankrolls their campaign?

Make legislators do their business in public.

In 2003 House leaders admitted what political insiders already knew - that many budget amendments and bills supported by a majority of representatives in the House never make it to the House floor for a vote.

There were then 28 members in the Republican majority caucus and 12 in the Democratic minority caucus. If an amendment had the support of, say, 13 Republicans and 11 Democrats - 24 of the 40 House members - it would be dead because it didn't have the support of a majority of the majority.

"Our process ... is that the majority rules," Rep. John Harris told reporters in 2003. Harris, now speaker of the House, was then a co-chair of the House Finance Committee.

"The [final] budget does not include minority amendments," Harris explained. "If there are going to be amendments that pass on the floor, they will be majority amendments. And if a majority member puts an amendment forward, I can guarantee you it will pass."

How could Harris be so certain of the outcome before any public votes were taken? The majority caucus takes the equivalent of private votes - in meetings from which reporters and any other members of the public are summarily banned.

Remarkably, in 2004 the Legislature responded to reporters' complaints by codifying the offending practice in law. They passed a bill exempting discussions of "political strategy" from the open meetings guidelines meant to ensure that legislative business is done in public, and defined "political strategy" to include everything but the kitchen sink.

The upshot of this piece of work - which passed under the Orwellian mantle of "ethics reform" - is that we reporters are warmly welcomed to caucus meetings featuring speeches by visiting Lithuanian dignitaries and arcane actuarial presentations, but when it comes time to talk about who's voting how and why, slam goes the door.

This is where the public comes in. We can press our legislators to pass sensible reforms like the ones suggested here. If they don't listen, we can write laws ourselves through voter initiatives.

But laws alone don't prevent bad acts. If they did, there would be no murder. It's up to citizens to vote thoughtfully when we elect and reelect public officials, and to keep in touch with our public servants to remind them who their boss really is.

As one anonymous contributor commented on the Anchorage Daily News political blog, "Let's get to know our legislators, shake their hands, look them in the eye and remind them that they represent and serve all of us, not an industry."

• Juneau resident Rebecca Braun is editor and publisher of the Alaska Budget Report, an independent newsletter covering state government and policy. She can be contacted at rbraun@alaska.com.



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