Bill to cut lawmakers' perks set for signing today

 Alaska State Capitol in Juneau, Alaska (KTUU)
Alaska State Capitol in Juneau, Alaska (KTUU) (KTUU)
Published: Jul. 18, 2018 at 6:39 PM AKDT
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A legislative reform bill is set to be signed into law Thursday, forcing legislators to pass a budget within 120 days or lose their big expense checks and forbidding lobbyists from buying them expensive meals and any drink stronger than coffee, tea or soda.

The bill is the work of freshman Rep. Jason Grenn, an independent from Anchorage. Grenn said the impetus for the measure was the earful he got from unhappy voters when he walked his district.

“This bill really a direct result of listening to neighbors — when I do door to door work, and talking to people one on one, they demanded changes,” he said.

Grenn said he didn’t take his own per diem in 2017 — at least $275, depending on the month — when the Legislature went into overtime and didn’t pass a budget until late.

“I lost about $25,000 in tax-free money,” Grenn said. “We were in session for 210 days last year — it really adds up.”

A voter initiative also supported by Grenn was so similar to the legislation that Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott struck it from the ballot, a process directed by the Alaska Constitution.

“I would have liked to have seen voters take a stand and use their power of the vote to do this, but the Legislature understood that the voters were very passionate about these reforms and decided to make the changes themselves,” Grenn said. “I give kudos to legislators.”

The bill also bans foreign companies from contributing money to Alaska politics, adding to a ban already in place on foreign individuals. And it requires legislators to get advance approval to travel to another country. The approval would be a public record, Grenn said.

While the bill also defines a conflict of interest for a lawmaker as including a financial stake in a bill by a legislator’s spouse, it doesn’t change the Legislature’s rules on voting — a lawmaker can still be required to vote on a bill providing a personal or employer benefit. That was the situation in 2013 when the Senate passed a bill to reduce oil taxes. The bill, Senate Bill 21, passed by a single vote, and two of the Senators in the Yes column were employees of ConocoPhillips, a conflict both acknowledged but which didn’t stop them from voting.

Ray Metcalfe, the anti-corruption activist and former legislator, has said that without the rule change on voting, the measure lacked teeth.

“The biggest ethics problem in Alaska’s legislature stems from corporations putting legislators on their payroll; sometimes as consultants, sometimes as employees,” Metcalfe said in email in January.

Metcalfe said that disclosure statements showed that the two senators who voted in favor of SB 21 “are paid many times their legislative salary by ConocoPhillips.”

Grenn agreed he needed to do more, and would try to change legislative rules if voters send him back to Juneau next year — though it takes a two-thirds vote to change the Legislature’s rules, not a simple majority like a bill.

“We still need to have some changes that need to happen in that regard, but this is a good first step,” Grenn said.

The bill signing ceremony is scheduled from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. in Jewel Lake Park near Dimond Boulevard in Grenn’s district.