The front of the Alaska State Capitol in Juneau is seen on Wednesday, April 12, 2023. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
Alaska Lt. Gov. Nancy Dahlstrom on Friday approved two ballot measures and disqualified a third from advancing into the signature-gathering phase.
The approved measures would impose new financial restrictions on political campaigns and grant an array of rights to workers, including mandatory sick leave, a higher minimum wage and the ability to opt out from employer-mandated political and religious instruction.
The rejected measure would have barred the state from paying for party-specific primary elections, as the state did before voters installed Alaska’s ranked choice voting system in 2020.
To qualify for next year’s elections, sponsors of the two approved measures must now gather signatures from at least 26,000 Alaskans in at least three-quarters of Alaska House districts before the Alaska Legislature convenes in January.
Open-primary ‘backstop’ fails legal test
Sponsors of the rejected measure intended that it serve as a backstop to guarantee nonpartisan primary elections in case Alaska’s current election system is repealed, but in a legal analysis, the Alaska Department of Law said that the measure would have violated Alaska’s constitutional ban on ballot measures that allocate money or resources.
“It would limit the Legislature’s ability to appropriate funds for partisan primaries or similar processes in the future,” the analysis said, “so it makes an appropriation in violation of the subject-matter restrictions on initiatives.”
This is the second ballot measure to be disqualified this year on legal grounds. Dahlstrom disqualified a proposed term limits measure last month.
Former Alaska Attorney General Bruce Botelho, a Juneau Democrat, was one of the sponsors of the rejected primary-elections measure and suggested that sponsors are unlikely to challenge the decision.
“While I have not looked at the case law, if it proves to be as described in the opinion, I think we will live with the ruling,” he said.
Attorney Scott Kendall, hired on contract by various groups, wrote all three of the ballot measures and said that it’s “unknown” how state judges would rule if the lieutenant governor’s disqualification were challenged in court, but that it would be “a close call.”
Sponsors will meet Sept. 23 to make a final decision on whether to file a court challenge, Botelho said.
Without a challenge, sponsors are expected to focus their attention on trying to defeat the ongoing push to repeal Alaska’s open-primary and ranked choice voting system.
The repeal push is being coordinated by sponsors of another ballot measure that has almost finished gathering signatures.
Art Mathias, one of the leaders of the repeal movement, said his group distributed about 1,000 petition booklets earlier this year and is now collecting those books for tabulation.
The 350 booklets they’ve received so far contain about 30,000 signatures, possibly enough to put a repeal measure in front of voters next year.
State law requires that signatures be spread across the state, and Mathias said that once all booklets have been returned, organizers will determine whether any additional signature-gathering is needed.
Mathias’ group has been named in campaign-finance complaints now being considered by state regulators, but those complaints are not expected to disrupt the group’s march toward the ballot next year.
Signature-gathering soon to begin for new campaign finance limits
One of the two measures approved by Dahlstrom would reimpose limits on the size of donations to Alaska political campaigns.
The state has been without campaign finance limits since 2021, when the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down Alaska’s prior limits after a lawsuit by Republican activists.
A three-judge panel concluded that the state’s limits were so low that they violated the First Amendment, but it suggested that higher limits could pass constitutional muster.
The state declined to appeal the decision, and the 2022 state elections went forward without restrictions, allowing candidates to collect huge sums from wealthy donors.
The Alaska Legislature has thus far failed to approve legislation with new limits, sparking a push to limit campaign contributions by ballot measure.
If the new measure becomes law, individuals would be able to donate up to $2,000 to individual candidates and up to $5,000 to political groups during each two-year election cycle. That limit would be adjusted every decade for the rate of inflation.
Individuals would be limited to donating $4,000 to a joint governor-lieutenant governor campaign, and there would be higher donation limits for political groups and election-related corporations.
The state’s prior campaign contribution limits were approved in a ballot measure by 73% of participating voters during the 2006 primary election, and supporters of the new measure say they expect a similar reception from voters this time around.
“I don’t think we suspect there will be much problem in collecting signatures well before the Legislature convenes in January,” said Botelho, who is sponsoring this measure as well as the rejected primary-election measure.
Another sponsor is Rep. Calvin Schrage, I-Anchorage, who has proposed a campaign-finance bill in the state House.
If that bill, or something substantially similar, were to become law before the election, it could negate the need for a ballot measure.
“Our hope is that this will be an added motivation for the Legislature to take up Schrage’s bill,” Botelho said.
Backers have until the start of the legislative session in January to get the signatures they need to put the measure in front of voters in fall 2024.
Minimum wage hike and mandatory sick leave get OK’d
The second measure approved by Dahlstrom on Friday seeks to gradually raise the state’s minimum wage, increasing it to $13 per hour on July 1, 2025, $14 one year later, and $15 by July 1, 2027.
The wage would be adjusted upward for inflation after that. Alaska already has an automatic inflation adjustment provision, and next year’s minimum wage is expected to be about $11.73 per hour.
Even after the increase, the state’s minimum wage will be below the state’s minimum livable wage, which has been estimated to be above $20 per hour.
Another provision of the proposed ballot measure would require employers to provide workers with one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours they work.
Employees at small companies could accrue up to 40 hours of mandatory leave; workers at larger firms could save up to 56 hours.
Employers would also be prohibited from requiring workers to undergo mandatory political or religious instruction. There would be some exemptions for workers in religious organizations.
Ed Flanagan is a former commissioner of the Alaska Department of Labor and a sponsor of the new measure.
“It’s kind of labor month in September, so we’ll be getting out there,” he said, explaining that he expects to receive blank petition booklets soon.
“We’re pretty confident that we’ll get the signatures well in advance of the deadline,” he said.
Flanagan was one of the sponsors of a successful 2014 push to increase Alaska’s minimum wage. That increase, proposed in a ballot measure, received the support of 69% of participating voters.
The push for the new minimum wage increase is being organized by Better Jobs for Alaska, a group predominantly funded by the Sixteen Thirty Fund, a progressive organization based in Washington, D.C.
Nine years ago, Flanagan and colleagues needed six months to gather signatures for a minimum wage increase. This time around, they’ll have a little over three months, and Flanagan said he expects to see a paid signature-gathering organization helping alongside volunteers.
“This is going to be a lot slicker operation than when I did it 10 years ago,” he said.
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