Ballot measure proposes changes for citizen initiatives

Posted: Wednesday, October 27, 2004

ANCHORAGE - Alaska voters on Nov. 2 will decide three ballot measures brought by citizens collecting petitions.

A fourth would make it harder for them to do so.

Ballot Measure 1 is a proposed constitutional amendment changing how signatures must be gathered for initiatives and referendums. The Legislature, in measures sponsored by Rep. Bill Williams, R-Saxman, put it on the ballot.

Williams contends that too many initiatives are put to voters without substantial support from the far reaches of the state. Instead, initiative sponsors focus on collecting signatures in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough cities, he said.

Voters in his district, which includes Ketchikan, have been ignored.

"For the last 10 petitions, we've only had approximately 50 people who signed the petitions," he said.

One petition seeking a state head tax on cruise ship passengers received scant attention in Ketchikan, a busy cruise ship port.

"I didn't even hear about it until you guys put it in the news," he said.

Under current law, petitioners need to gather signatures equal to 10 percent of the voter turnout in the last election. They must collect at least one signature from a registered voter in two-thirds of Alaska's state House districts - 27 of the 40 districts.

Williams' amendment would require signatures from 30 districts. And in each of those districts, petitioners would have to collect at least 7 percent of the number of Alaskans who voted in that district in the last general election.

Framers of the constitution wanted all Alaskans to at least know about the initiatives, Williams said. In 1956, the population was concentrated in Juneau, Fairbanks and Anchorage.

"They did not want those areas to dictate to other parts of the state. I think that's what's happening today," Williams said. "They can do anything they want, whenever they want."

Opponents contend that Williams should not be fixing something that's not broken.

David Finkelstein, a former Democratic legislator and a veteran of citizen initiative campaigns, said some legislators have a long history of trying to undermine the right of Alaskans to use the initiative process.

"They're doing it again, amending the constitution to try to make it harder for citizens to get access to the ballot box. It makes no sense at all," he said.

What's billed as a means of making the initiative process more democratic is in reality a reaction by legislators who believe initiatives diminish their authority, Finkelstein said.

"They'd rather have all the power to create laws," he said.

He is not bothered by most signatures being gathered in key regions. Initiatives have been used traditionally to solve regional issues, such as whether to move the capital.

"Most of the signatures were gathered in certain areas of the state," he said. "What's wrong with that? The initiative process gives all Alaskans the final say on things."

He also believes legislators retain the most power.

The Legislature is allowed to make changes in law after initiatives are proposed, as was the case with campaign reform proposed by initiative.

Initiatives cannot be used to appropriate money, a power that remains in the hands of legislators.

Also, two years after passage, legislators can repeal laws created by initiative.

The bottom line, Finkelstein said, is whether Alaskans should have more or less access to the ballot box.

Williams questioned how power was being taken from the people when many Alaskans have no say in putting measures on the ballot.

"What's wrong with Bethel, Nome, Kotzebue, Barrow, Ketchikan, Sitka, Wrangell?" he asked.

The intent, he said, was not to set up an obstacle to initiatives.

"I did not look at it that way when I sponsored the piece of legislation," Williams said. "That wasn't my goal, to make it harder for the people. I just wanted to expand democracy in Alaska."

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