Initiative backers seek support - fast

Posted: Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Advocates working to change state laws by initiative have less than 90 days to collect the 23,285 signatures needed to make it onto the 2004 ballot.

Six ballot initiatives have been filed with the state Division of Elections: Campaign finance reform, marijuana decriminalization, filling U.S. Senate vacancies through election, taxation of cruise ships, prohibiting bear baiting, and exempting Alaskans from registering for Selective Service.

The application for an initiative to tax and enforce stricter environmental standards on cruise ships was submitted to Leman on April 29, and rejected on Aug. 19, because it did not apply to a single subject. Two days later, sponsors submitted a new version of the initiative, which was certified Oct. 8.

Sponsors Joe Geldhof, Gershon Cohen and Norman Sarabia now are scrambling to make up for lost time.

To get 30,000 signatures - enough to cover invalid entries - the sponsors must collect about 337 signatures a day up until the Jan. 12 deadline.

Although it took more than five months of review and rewrites to get started, Geldhof, of Juneau, said the complexity of the initiative likely contributed to the long review.

The initiative would institute a $50 tax on passengers, a corporate income tax on the industry and a 33 percent tax on onboard gambling. It also requires cruise ships to have a certified marine engineer onboard to monitor wastewater treatment practices, and increases the fines for dumping wastewater from $500 to $5,000.

With less than three months to collect the signatures, Geldhof, who worked on the 1996 campaign finance reform initiative, said there is about a 25 percent to 50 percent chance they'll have enough in time.

"We're working against weather, a short time frame and other initiatives," said Geldhof, a lawyer for the Marine Engineers' Beneficial Association.

Geldhof said the signature booklets will not be distributed until next week.

Steve Cleary, executive director of the Anchorage-based Alaska Public Interest Research Group, said AkPIRG is helping coordinate the signature-gathering effort for the cruise ship head tax, campaign finance reform and Senate vacancy initiatives.

"It's late in the game to not have the booklets and not have people out there collecting the signatures," Cleary said.

He said a trip to Juneau last week attracted about 15 volunteers for the campaign finance reform initiative.

Certified by Leman on Sept. 19, the proposal aims to reverse campaign finance laws passed this year by the Legislature.

Sponsored by House Democrats Harry Crawford and Eric Croft of Anchorage and David Guttenberg of Fairbanks, it would reduce the amount:

• individuals can donate to candidates from $1,000 to $500.

• individuals can donate to a political party from $10,000 to $5,000.

• political action committees can contribute to candidates from $2,000 to $1,000.

• political action committees can contribute to political parties from $4,000 to $1,000.

It also would require lobbyists to register with the state after spending more than 10 hours a month directly influencing lawmakers.

Another initiative filed by the three House Democrats would require a special election to fill U.S. Senate vacancies. The existing law allows the governor to appoint a replacement to the position.

The initiative was first submitted on Aug. 6 but has not been certified by Leman. Last week, initiative sponsors sued Leman, and Anchorage Superior Court Judge Mark Rindner ordered him to make a decision by Oct. 27.

Initiatives on bear baiting and decriminalizing marijuana have the best chance of making it onto the 2004 ballot.

The bear baiting initiative would make it illegal to bait or intentionally feed bears for the purposes of hunting, photography or wildlife-viewing.

Soren Wuerth, a coordinator for Citizens United Against Bear Baiting, said the group had collected more than 26,000 signatures by the beginning of October. The petition for the initiative was certified on June 18, just in time to collect signatures at the state fair in Palmer.

"You're missing at least 5,000 signatures if you miss the state fair," Wuerth said.

An initiative to decriminalize marijuana for those over 21 was rejected by Leman in January over what an Anchorage Superior Court judge called "trivial rule violations."

The court ordered the state Division of Elections to count 188 signature booklets that had been rejected because those who collected the signatures did not fill out sponsor accountability reports, identifying who collected them.

The state attorney general's office said Tuesday that a decision has not been made on whether to appeal the case to the state Supreme Court.

An initiative that is not likely to make it onto the 2004 ballot would require Gov. Frank Murkowski to study the effects of exempting Alaskans from registering with the Selective Service System.

Initiative sponsor Scott Kohlhaas, of Anchorage, said the group has about six people "collecting signatures at their own pace." It was certified June 20.

Kohlhaas estimated that the group has about 2,000 signatures so far.

"We are trying to finish it in the spring of next year," he said.

• Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at

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