Sponsors cover the state as initiative deadline nears

Posted: Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Signature gatherers scattered across Alaska are now finding out just how tough the state's new requirements are to place citizen initiatives on the ballot.

With a Jan. 9 deadline closing in, sponsors of just two of six active petitions say they have more than the 31,451 signatures they need for their initiatives to be considered for next November's general election. To have a place on the next ballot, signatures must be submitted to the state Division of Elections for certification by the start of the legislative session.

"It swallowed my whole summer," said state Rep. Jay Ramras, R-Fairbanks. "I collected thousands myself."

Ramras is the main sponsor of a proposed initiative to shorten Alaska's legislative sessions from 120 days to 90 days. Signatures collected so far: More than 40,000, and going strong.

The reason for his success?

"People think we waste a lot of time in Juneau and we could improve the process," Ramras said.

Other sponsors haven't fared so well.

"We're not going to make it," said Ray Metcalfe, the Alaska Republican Moderate Party chairman and sponsor of a proposal to repeal the economic limit factor.

The ELF formula is meant to give oil companies a break on production taxes for uneconomic wells, but Metcalfe and others say the state has lost billions of dollars in taxes due to the profitable wells also benefiting from the formula.

"We've had some very serious interest, but it was kind of late in the ball game," he said.

An early jump was key for this round of initiatives since voters in 2004 approved a measure to make it tougher to get on the ballot.

Petitioners still need signatures totaling at least 10 percent of the last election's turnout. But now the signatures have to come from three-quarters of the state's 40 House districts, instead of two-thirds. Plus, within each of those districts, petitioners must gather signatures from at least seven percent of those who voted in the last election for that district to count in the total.

The result has been more petitioners, or their paid gatherers and volunteers, in remote Alaskan towns they may not have gone prior to 2004.

That's just what backers of the changes were aiming for - a more inclusive representation of voters across the state, not just on its large population centers.

"It's made the process more difficult, but it's made it healthier," Ramras said.

He and Rep. Eric Croft are the only two sponsors who estimate they now have the numbers to take their proposals to the next phase of the process.

Croft, an Anchorage Democrat who is running for governor, figures he, too, has about 40,000 signatures for his measure to tax North Slope oil companies on natural gas reserves that do not go to market. His initiative is the result of his frustration seeing the gas fields of Point Thomson sit for decades without being developed.

His success with the petition drive has led to a committee hearing on a similar piece of legislation soon after the session begins.

"This Legislature is still too controlled by outside oil interests, but they're starting to realize what the people already know - that we've got to do something," Croft said.

If lawmakers pass a substantially similar bill to what an initiative proposes, the proposition doesn't go on the ballot.

That can play into the strategy of initiative sponsors, too. Darwin Biwer, whose proposal would create an Alaska Gaming Commission to oversee gambling in the state, says his group has gathered about 20,000 signatures so far. Even if they don't collect enough signatures in time, they still have the 2008 election, and the Legislature knows it, he said.

"It will be hanging over their head. If they don't do something, we will," said Biwer, owner of the bar Darwin's Theory in Anchorage.

Biwer said he thinks his group could still turn in the signatures by the deadline. They began in the more difficult rural areas first and left Anchorage for last, he said.

Sponsors of two other propositions are lagging because they did not receive their petition booklets until November, but both say they are still hopeful they will meet the deadline.

The first is a group that wants to regulate pesticides around schools and child care centers. Sponsor Pamela Miller, executive director of the group Alaska Community Action on Toxics, estimated the group has collected about a fourth of the necessary signatures. She attributed the low number to a four-month delay in receiving the petition booklets.

The other active petition being circulated would allow aerial wolf hunts only if there is a proven biological emergency. That proposal was the last to be certified, at the end of October.

One of the sponsors, Juneau wilderness writer Nick Jans, said he did not have a firm estimate of the number of signatures they have collected. Jans, who recently returned from a two-week trip to Nome and Kotzebue to gather support, said the response has been good.

"We're putting on a big push and we're very optimistic," Jans said. "We're focusing real hard on the Jan. 9 (deadline), we're not going to think about the secondary possibility until it comes."

Division of Elections chief Whitney Brewster said the division is preparing to deal with the flood of signatures next month. She plans to bring on extra staff just to sort them all out.

"We plan on having at least eight devoted purely on qualifying these signatures," Brewster said.

The division will have 60 days from Jan. 9 to certify the signatures.

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