Sponsor says Alaska elections initiative has enough signatures to be placed on ballot

The Alaska House of Representatives entrance in the Capitol in 2015. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

Sponsors of an initiative to overhaul Alaska’s election laws said Friday that they have enough signatures for the measure to be placed on the ballot this year.

The initiative is among several issues that are expected to be the focus of state government ahead of the start of the next legislative session on Jan. 21.

Former Rep. Jason Grenn, an independent, is the primary sponsor of the Alaska’s Better Elections Initiative. It would create an open primary that would send the top four vote-getters to the general election. Then voters would be able to rank their choices in the general election. The rankings would be used to ensure that election winners are preferred by a majority of voters.

The initiative also would increase campaign finance disclosures.

Jason Grenn, a former independent representative from Anchorage, testifies before the House Judiciary Committee in January 2017. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

Grenn said the group backing the initiative has gathered more than 35,000 signatures, which is roughly 7,000 more than is required. He noted that the Legislature passed a law two years ago that knocked an ethics initiative he supported off of the ballot.

“We’re not expected that again this time, but obviously we’ll be paying attention and working with the Legislature if it ever comes, to be able to present the correct information about what the initiative does and what it doesn’t do,” Grenn said of the possibility of a bill that’s similar to the elections initiative. “But at this point, we’re not expecting anything to be done legislatively.”

Grenn said the initiative signatures could be submitted as soon as Tuesday.

On Jan. 10 and Jan. 17, the Legislature will release its lists of bills that have been filed by lawmakers ahead of the session.

Chances for two other initiatives — one to increase oil and gas production taxes and another to change the location of legislative sessions to Anchorage — aren’t clear. The deadline for initiatives to be placed on the ballot this year is the start of the session, or Jan. 21.

Once the session starts, the focus is expected to be on the budget. Dunleavy introduced a spending plan that would draw more than $1.55 billion from the Constitutional Budget Reserve. That amount is roughly three quarters of the $2 billion in the CBR, which once stood at more than $10 billion but has been diminished by repeated draws to balance the budget.

The governor has said he wants to hear Alaskans’ views on the budget in a series of meetings he’ll hold around the state. It’s not clear how Dunleavy will use that feedback. His office has said he isn’t planning to introduce legislation at this time. And lawmakers may be reluctant to advance their own plans if they face vetoes from the governor.

Different approaches have been raised for closing the budget gap.

One approach would be to change the formula used to calculate permanent fund dividends. The formula in law since 1982 — but not used since 2015 — sets the amount available for dividends at half of the average fund earnings over the previous five years. Lawmakers have discussed changing the formula to be based on a share of the annual draw on the fund.

Lawmakers have also talked about introducing a broad-based statewide tax, such as an income tax or sales tax. Increasing the taxes paid by oil and gas companies is another possibility. And changing the formulas for large state programs, like public education and Medicaid, is also possible.

A legislative working group focused on the permanent fund may also release its recommendations ahead of the session. There appears to be broad agreement not to draw more from the fund than an annual draw of 5% of the fund’s total value. That draw amount was set by the Legislature in 2018.

A six-member bicameral working group focused on the Village Public Safety Officer Program will meet on Jan. 9 in Anchorage. It will discuss a draft report and take public testimony on the issue. Rural public safety has been the focus of a series of articles by the Anchorage Daily News and investigative journalism organization ProPublica.

Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect the fact that ballot initiatives could appear on either the August primary or November general election ballots.