Initiative steeped in partisan battles

Senate vacancy measure would require a special election for an open seat

Posted: Thursday, October 07, 2004

Next month, Alaskans will decide whether to change state law and take away the governor's power to appoint a U.S. senator, a power some say Gov. Frank Murkowski abused when appointing his daughter Lisa Murkowski to fill his vacant seat.

Ballot Measure 4, one of four initiatives on the Nov. 2 ballot, would require a special election for an open U.S. Senate seat.

Initiative sponsors say administration officials, specifically Lt. Gov. Loren Leman, and state lawmakers have tried to block it.

Republicans have argued that Democrats have pushed to get the issue on the ballot to derail Murkowski's bid to maintain her Senate seat. Critics of the bill say a special election could result in a vacant Senate seat while critical legislation critical is under consideration.

"This is very clearly a partisan move," said Murkowski spokes-man Elliott Bundy. "If this movement were simply about filling the Senate vacancy then the backers would be satisfied by the law the Legislature enacted."

Republicans and Democrats have gone head to head over the issue since 2001, when the Legislature voted to take away Gov. Tony Knowles' power to fill the seat vacated by then-U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski.

Rep. Eric Croft, one of three Democratic lawmakers who sponsored the initiative, said the bill passed by the Alaska Legislature still would have allowed the governor to appoint a temporary replacement until the special election. He denied claims that the initiative was brought forth in an attempt to hurt Murkowski's campaign.

"I think the issue of how she got her job is a significant one for Lisa," he said. "To an extent (the initiative) reminds people of that. I'm not denying it's an issue, but who's fault is that?"

Sen. Ralph Seekins, R-Fairbanks, who wrote the opposition statement in the state voter's guide, argued that the initiative could leave a Senate seat open for three to five months and that Alaska would suffer with one less vote in Congress.

The issue of senatorial appointment wasn't in the news much until 2001, when many began speculating that U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski would return to Alaska to run for governor. That year the Alaska Legislature, in anticipation of his gubernatorial bid, changed state law, requiring that a Senate seat be open five days before a governor can fill it.

Republican lawmakers who supported the measure said that it was intended to give the public time to comment on the appointment. Democrats argued that it was a partisan move intended to deny Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles the power to fill Murkowski's seat if he became governor.

Peggy Wilcox, a spokesperson for the ballot initiative effort, said Sen. Lisa Murkowski voted in favor of the bill while serving in the state House of Representatives, denying Knowles the appointment authority.

"She voted for it and she also voted against amendments proposed by Democrats that would have removed the power of appointment," Wilcox said. "So we come to a point where Frank Murkowski appoints his own daughter and people are outraged by that."

The Republican-controlled Legislature passed the bill, which was vetoed by Knowles. Republicans, however, returned in 2002 to override the veto.

The Senate vacancy initiative, sponsored by House Democrats Croft and Harry Crawford, both of Anchorage, and David Guttenberg of Fairbanks, would require that a special election be called by the governor for a U.S. Senate vacancy unless it occurs within 60 days of a primary election.

The opposition statement by Seekins and former Anchorage Mayor George Sullivan says the lag time creates and "unacceptable risk."

The opposition statement reads: " ... a loss of that one Alaska vote could affect the size of our share in the federal transportation budget, the military appropriations budget, federal support of our rural communities, or federal support for a natural gas line or development of (the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge)."

Last month, Lt. Gov. Leman rewrote the ballot initiative language stating that a vacated seat would remain empty for three to five months if a special election were required. The initiative sponsors sued citing biased language and won, resulting in the recall and reprinting of 517,000 ballots.

The initiative sponsors have sued the state multiple times in their effort to get the question on the ballot. Leman denied the group petition booklets in 2003 because he said the proposal violated the 17th amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The decision was based on a recommendation from Attorney General Greg Renkes, who said its passage would prevent the Legislature from changing the state law for two years, a right given to that body by the U.S. Constitution.

The Legislature passed its own version of the initiative earlier this year. State law gave Leman the authority to remove the issue from the ballot due to the dual legislation, but initiative sponsors sued again and a judge ruled that the new law was significantly different from the proposed initiative because of a clause that would have allowed the governor to appoint a replacement until a special election was held.

"We had to sue to get the petition booklets. We had to sue to get on the ballot. And we had to sue to make sure the ballot language is true and unbiased," Wilcox said.

Leman has repeatedly defended himself against the accusations that he been biased in his treatment of the initiative, recently stating: "I operate on what I believe is factual."

Sen. Ted Stevens last Friday in Washington publicly stated his opposition to the initiative and that he plans to return to Alaska within the next few weeks to campaign against the initiative.

Courtney Schikora, a spokesperson for Stevens, said Stevens believes that a vacancy in the Senate could prevent passage of an important project, such as opening ANWR for oil drilling or construction of a gas pipeline.

"It is imperative that Alaska has two senators and one congressman at all times," Schikora said.

• Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at timothy.inklebarger@juneauempire.com.



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