Jenkins: Initiative bids for spots on next year’s ballot mostly bad news

By Paul Jenkins |

For national political outfits, Super PACs, zillionaires and assorted bounders itching to hustle outlandish ideas into law with the least amount of money and sweat, Alaska is a cheap date. Always has been.

With such a small electoral base to influence — 581,075 registered voters — special interests’ dollars stretch much further in Alaska. Hence, the Frozen North is a magnet for those who would use the initiative process to achieve policy aims while dodging legislative messiness.

It is a nifty way, warned the late Washington Post political columnist David Broder, to have something constitutionally unimaginable: laws without government. Instead of hearings, debate, public testimony and vetting by the people’s representatives, complex public policy questions are stripped of detail and nuance, and reduced to simple yes-or-no propositions in a taste of the direct democracy the Founding Fathers so abhorred.

Even as you read this, there are folks scrambling to get onto the 2020 ballot no fewer than four such questions in Alaska. Three of them are simply terrible.

The first, “An Act relating to the oil and gas production tax, tax payments, and tax credits,” shows exactly how those pushing such initiatives can work to bollix up the works while claiming a halo.

The group involved, “Vote Yes for Alaska’s Fair Share,” tiredly says Alaskans — and it means government, not you — are getting hosed out of a fair share of oil dollars and it wants to wring another billion or two out of North Slope oil producers to make that right.

It is the latest iteration of the anti-oil crowd’s incessant attacks on Alaska’s primary industry — and every bit as dumb as Sarah Palin’s Alaska’s Clear and Equitable Share, or ACES, oil tax, maybe more so. ACES was good for government, not ordinary Alaskans.

In pursuing more oil dollars for government, Palin’s brainchild was incredibly aggressive, contributing to a 90% marginal tax rate at higher oil prices — among the world’s highest at the time. Industry did what you and I would do: It shifted investment dollars to other oil provinces with more sensible tax regimes, and Alaska stagnated as the others boomed.

The “Fair Share” initiative’s backers inexplicably want a return to the bad ol’ days, just as billions of dollars in massive industry projects are underway on the North Slope.
The second effort, “Alaska Students’ Educational Bill of Rights,” simply is pitiful. With state budget cuts looming, it is backed — surprise! — by the National Education Association-Alaska as a way to set policy goals ensuring the state provides a “quality” education for Alaska students, money or no money.

The law office of Holland & Knight gave the Anchorage School District a legal opinion that illuminates the mess. It says the initiative potentially would usurp local school boards’ control and authority, fails to lay out a funding source and is long on aspirational goals, but short on how those are to be achieved. There also is nothing about who will be responsible for attaining those goals, or how to fund programs designed to meet the objectives.

It is a prime example of good intentions running loose without a public process.

The third initiative petition, boasting 25 pages of legalese to change Alaska election law, is almost completely funded by moneyed Outside interests. Pushed by Alaskans for Better Elections, it would, among other things, institute ranked-choice voting, open primaries and limit campaign contributions.

Ranked-choice voting is a lousy idea. The Heritage Foundation correctly describes it as “a scheme to disconnect elections from issues and allow candidates with marginal support from voters to win elections.”

The foundation is not alone. We can all agree California’s Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, is no right-wing crank. He vetoed ranked-choice voting for runoffs in his state, saying it “often led to voter confusion and that the promise that ranked-choice voting leads to greater democracy is not necessarily fulfilled.”

As for opening primary elections? Why? Closed primaries replaced onerous behind-closed-doors candidate selection. Open primaries hamstring a party’s ability to choose its strongest candidates and field those who adhere to its platform.

The fourth ballot effort, “An initiative requiring meetings of the Alaska Legislature to be held in Anchorage,” is a four-paragraph initiative whose title says it all. What’s not to like? Despite that, it, too, should go through the legislative mill to unearth pitfalls.

Initiatives, an idea spawned during the late 19th and early 20th centuries’ Progressive Era, lead to simplistic, one-size-fits-all outcomes for complex policy issues. Emotion over intellect; a sales job. Unfortunately, Alaska is attractive to special interests focused on easily advancing political and policy aims without the pesky Legislature. With Alaska’s small voting base and a struggling news industry, it is all too easy to peddle bad ideas when they go unchallenged.

In the long run, that can prove expensive, especially for a cheap date.

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