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Legislature’s Exit Time Could Shift Initiative Scheduling

Between a contested Senate primary and a mess of ballot questions, the August election is expected to be particularly lively. But a set of unusual circumstances and odd timing has the potential to knock all but one of the citizen measures to the November general election, if the Legislature gavels out late.

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Since the early weeks of the session, legislative leadership has been emphatic that they plan to gavel out early.

House Speaker Mike Chenault: “There’s a number of us that don’t think that Juneau is the place to be on Easter Sunday.”

And Senate President Charlie Huggins: “Let’s get out of here before Easter.”

An early close to the session lets lawmakers and staff enjoy egg hunts, family meals, and religious services. It also avoids a major ballot shuffle.

Here’s the deal: The Alaska Constitution stipulates that 120 days need to pass after a legislative session before a citizens’ initiative can go to a vote. The idea is to give lawmakers a chance to address ballot questions through the legislative process.

Ever since the Legislature switched to shorter sessions, all initiatives have ended up on the August ballot with plenty of time to spare before they would be kicked to the next race.

This year is a little different.

“There’s not a lot of wiggle room there,” says Libby Bakalar, an assistant attorney general with the Department of Law who specializes in election issues.

Bakalar says if you look at a calendar, there are exactly 120 days between the April 20 adjournment date and the August 19 primary.

“I guess without getting too close into the granular details of it, I would say that if it comes to pass that the Legislature does not adjourn on time, we’ll have to evaluate the state of the ballot at that point,” says Bakalar.

The timing is a bit of a “when-the-stars-align” sort of thing. On top of the interplay between the constitutional rules for initiatives and the shortened legislative session, Gov. Sean Parnell last year succeeded in getting the primary date moved up one week, to the third Tuesday in August.

That all adds up to a situation where if the Legislature goes even a minute beyond their scheduled closure, there’s a legal argument that initiatives on marijuana, the minimum wage, and the proposed Pebble mine should be put off until November. (If the Legislature gavels out on time but then convene in special session, the initiatives would not be bumped.)

But Bakalar says a referendum repealing a law that caps the tax rate on North Slope oil at 35 percent would not get moved. As if the rules governing elections were not complicated enough, the Constitution differentiates between initiatives, which create laws, and referenda, which strike them down. Referenda get voted on during the first election held more 180 days from the session when the law was passed.

“The referendum — the Senate Bill 21 referendum — will be on the primary ballot no matter what,” says Bakalar.

So, what does this all mean, aside from a potential headache for the Division of Elections? Well, if you’re looking at a tight race, it could mean a lot.

John Bitney managed Lisa Murkowski’s Senate campaign, and he knows firsthand how ballot questions can shape other races.

“Well, in the 2010 primary, in addition of course to the U.S. Senate race, there was an initiative on the ballot that required parental [notification] for teenage girls to go get an abortion procedure,” says Bitney.

Even though Murkowski supported the parental notification initiative, her opponent Joe Miller took a more conservative stance on abortion issues. Miller aligned himself with groups like Alaska Right to Life, which were already encouraging people to go out and vote for the initiative.

“It really drove them to the polls,” says Bitney. “If they were in favor of it, they felt very strongly in favor of it. And therefore, it was a very high likelihood that they would show up on election day and cast a ballot.”

In a major upset, Miller ended up beating an incumbent senator by just 2,000 votes. While Murkowski ultimately saved her seat through a write-in campaign, Bitney thinks that may have been avoided if the ballot composition had been different.

“In hindsight, I think we probably should have paid a little closer attention to that issue going in,” says Bitney.

This year, campaigners for and against the oil tax referendum are definitely paying attention to where the initiatives end up.

Renee Limoge handles communications for the Alaska Support Industry Alliance, a trade association that opposes the referendum. She says she’ll be watching the scheduling of the initiatives because of how they might affect turnout.

“Definitely, says Limoge. “Initiatives do bring people to the polls, and we’ve got quite a varying number. We watch that.”

Referendum supporters also think the initiatives will drive voters — and that those voters will be sympathetic to their cause. Ray Metcalfe is one of the organizers behind “Vote Yes! Repeal the Giveaway,” and a former legislator. He says if the Legislature gavels out late, it could be a blow to the repeal campaign.

“Oh, we’ll cry foul,” says Metcalfe.

But Metcalfe says there’s a wrinkle. Right now, Republicans — who largely support the new oil tax law — are effectively in charge of adjournment because of their majority status. The Republican Party is also invested in beating Democratic incumbent Mark Begich in the Senate race, in keeping control of governor’s mansion, and maintaining dominance in the Legislature.

Metcalfe thinks having initiatives that are seen as attracting more liberal-minded voters would not help those goals in the general election.

“They probably are on a little bit of the horns of a dilemma, because you’re going to have more Democrats elected if those three initiatives are on the November ballot,” says Metcalfe.

For their part, leadership in the Legislature has said they do not want to wrestle with that dilemma. Some members have said they do not want to get involved in anything voters might perceive as electioneering. After all, there’s a lot of work to do between now and the end of session, and there’s not extra time for political gamesmanship if people want to get out early.

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