Initiative group tells Renkes to speed up process

Democrat-backed initiative to change method of filling U.S. Senate vacancies is being stalled, says Rep. Eric Croft

Posted: Sunday, October 05, 2003

A group backing an initiative to change the way Alaska fills vacancies to the U.S. Senate is pressuring the state attorney general to speed up his legal review so a petition drive can begin.

The sponsors - all minority Democrats in the Alaska Legislature - have hired an attorney who has given Attorney General Gregg Renkes until Monday to decide whether it can go forward.

Anchorage Rep. Eric Croft, one of the sponsors of the measure, said the group is prepared to seek an injunction to get a decision.

Croft and Democratic Reps. Harry Crawford of Anchorage and David Guttenberg of Fairbanks, filed their initiative petition in August followed by an amended petition Sept. 5.

The group has until Jan. 12, when the Legislature returns, to gather more than 23,000 signatures to get it on the November 2004 statewide ballot.

The group cannot begin gathering signatures until Renkes approves it in a recommendation to the lieutenant governor. The longer the wait, the less likely sponsors will be able to gather enough signatures in time, Croft said.

Current Alaska law allows the governor to name the appointment. Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski named his daughter, state Rep. Lisa Murkowski, to fill out his unexpired term.

The initiative would require a special election to fill an unexpired vacancy in the U.S. Senate, mirroring state law on filling a vacancy in Alaska's lone U.S. Representative seat.

Croft accused the attorney general - who was appointed by Gov. Murkowski - of stalling in order to keep the measure off the ballot.

"You don't have to be a genius to see politics at work here," said Croft. "We didn't get to vote on who was going to be our U.S. Senator and now we don't get a vote on whether to change that process," Croft said.

In a letter to Renkes, the lawmakers' attorney Peter Aschenbrenner said he would take "legal action in state or federal court."

But Renkes dismissed the criticism and said the initiative raises complex legal questions. Threats of court action won't speed up the process, he said, adding the group could have filed its petition earlier to give it more time to gather signatures.

"Our review process must include whether or not this is a proper subject for the initiative process," Renkes said. "Answering that question raises serious constitutional issues."

Murkowski's power to pick a vacancy to the U.S. Senate came as a result of legislation approved by the Alaska Legislature.

The U.S. Constitution provides that state legislative bodies set the process for filing such a vacancy and makes no mention of citizens initiatives.

Supporters argue that the state's citizens initiative process - provided for in the state constitution - is synonymous with the Legislature.

The state Department of Law is researching whether that is the case and the initiative would not violate the process set out in the U.S. Constitution.

In any case, Croft argues the department shouldn't take such a far-reaching examination of the issue. Its job, he argues, is only to decide whether it meets the state requirements.

Whether it passes muster with the U.S. Constitution should be decided by a judge in a lawsuit if the measure is enacted, he said.

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