Legislature(1995 - 1996)
01/26/1995 08:03 AM STA
* first hearing in first committee of referral
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
HSTA - 01/26/95 Number 020 HJR 4 - USE OF INITIATIVE TO AMEND CONSTITUTION REPRESENTATIVE TERRY MARTIN, SPONSOR OF HJR 4, gave a history of state constitutions and the rights of people to change them. He said a constitution is a contract between the state and its people and thus people have a right to change it. Constitutional conventions were instigated as an alternative to revolution as a method for change, but they became too cumbersome and the public initiative came into being. In Alaska, over 500 initiatives have been introduced by legislators, but less than 20 of them have passed. He added that the people of Alaska need a way to change their constitution. Number 133 REPRESENTATIVE ED WILLIS asked what states allow a change in the constitution by just a simple majority of the voters on a ballot. REPRESENTATIVE MARTIN replied that most do, although it is more difficult for a legislature to get an issue on the ballot, requiring a two-thirds vote of the legislators in most states. REPRESENTATIVE WILLIS asked how many signatures are required on a citizen's petition, and then what happens. REPRESENTATIVE MARTIN replied that the figures of the National Conference of State Legislatures show between five and ten percent of the number of voters in the most recent election. Then there is a five-step procedure. A group forms with one hundred members throughout the state and three officers; they create a stated mission, which they take to the Lt. Governor's office for approval to petition. When enough signatures are gathered and certified by the Division of Elections, corresponding legislation is then required. He stated it is not a very easy process and people don't sign a petition blindly. Number 226 REPRESENTATIVE IVAN IVAN commented this resolution scares him and some of his constituents. He stated that Alaska reviews its constitution every ten years. He added he thought that the voters in his district would be outvoted by the voters in the more urban districts and that because English is a second language to many voters in his district, they might be confused by the technical wording of the language on the ballot. REPRESENTATIVE MARTIN disagreed, stating that Alaska has this option but has never exercised it because the voters have always voted down a constitutional convention. Number 281 CHAIR JAMES commented that, while not coming out in support or against this resolution, she felt that if the voters had had this right in the past, they would have supported a number of issues to the ballot, including term limits and the subsistence issue, possibly without the rationality or balance of power that the legislature can provide. She added though, that the people in California had used the initiative process numerous times to the extent that the legislature and administration of that state complained about the massive intrusion of the people into their affairs, and that the question had to be asked whether this was good or bad. She said she had mixed feelings about the resolution, but also knew that for some issues you would never get a two-thirds majority of the legislature to agree, and this could prevent the voice of the people from being heard. She further stated today we have professional petitioners who can, for a few bucks, circulate petitions and gather signatures, and she wasn't sure that everyone who signed a petition knew exactly what they were signing. She said that, in fact, she's heard a lot of people, who after signing a petition say they don't go along with this process, but think the people should have a right to vote on it. She further stated many times the people only get one side of the argument, because one side has more money to spend than the other. "The bottom line is that the needs of the people are not met," she said. She concluded by saying that no matter what they did, they were going to be infringing on the rights of someone, and the best thing they could do was to try and find a balance and to do the best job they could do to have a democratic society, and that it is never going to be perfect. Number 337 REPRESENTATIVE JOE GREEN concurred with Chair James and said he felt that it probably summarized the position of a lot of legislators. He said it was possible that, because of the formal presentations given to legislative committees, legislators may be more informed about an issue than the average citizen on the street. He agreed with Chair James, that if you have a preponderance of information on one side and not the other, you can sway the public. He said one thing that should be pointed out is that although legislators are elected by their constituents, it is not necessarily representative of the whole voting public because some legislators, especially Chairs, have the ability to kill certain legislation, which the rest of the elected body doesn't have a chance to vote on. He thought there was an imperfect situation of being able to represent the will of the people without their direct vote. Number 362 REPRESENTATIVE BRIAN PORTER was concerned that the actual wording that would ultimately change the constitution would be written by special interest groups, instead of going through a set process as it has to now. He said this was what had happened in California, and this was what they could not live with down there. He further stated he wasn't sure the voting public was that interested in this issue. Number 380 REPRESENTATIVE SCOTT OGAN stated he had read this resolution very carefully because it had long-term ramifications. He stated he viewed the constitution as something almost sacred, and he had taken an oath to uphold and defend it to the best of his ability. He said he wasn't sure that it was something that should be changed by whims or popular ideas of a time. He said the constitution was something that had had a lot of thought go into it, and the forefathers of the Alaska Constitution had framed our constitution much on the U.S. Constitution. He stated his biggest problem with this resolution was that it allowed for changes to the constitution with a simple majority of the people. He thought it might be more appropriate if changes could only be made with a two-thirds majority, as was required of the legislature. He thought this would give a more true indication of the will of the people. He said this was a tough call for him because he thought the people should have a right to change their government by referendum. Number 415 REPRESENTATIVE CAREN ROBINSON said she agreed with many of the comments already made, but was also concerned with what might be the fiscal impact of this resolution. She said she could see where there could be increased costs to the election department and attorney general's office, and she was curious as to whether the departments were just not finished with the fiscal note or whether it was just too difficult to determine the costs on this one. REPRESENTATIVE MARTIN responded that the cost would be $2,200; the cost of ballot printing. He said in most cases the people paid for the costs, which he thought demonstrated their sincerity over that of the legislature, who didn't have to pay for the costs of legislation. He explained the initiative process was something that was very time consuming and which was paid for by the sponsors of the initiative and not the public treasury. REPRESENTATIVE ROBINSON verified that the reason there was no fiscal note was that it was just going to cost the $2,200 for the printing of the ballot. REPRESENTATIVE MARTIN agreed. REPRESENTATIVE ROBINSON asked which other states allowed the initiative process of amending their constitution. REPRESENTATIVE MARTIN replied there were several. He further stated that everyone seemed to be bringing up the case of California as an example of where the people used the initiative process often, and reminded the committee that the sponsors paid the cost of the initiative and not the government. "Even though California pushes through a lot of initiatives and they have a lot of excitement about democracy, relatively few of the ballot questions pass" he said. He continued, "I bet it's less than fifteen percent. But the ones that do pass are well thought of." He added that most of the time, the only reason it cost the state, was when the government fought the decision of the initiative. He further stated the advantage of this resolution was that it required legislation accompany the initiative, and if the legislation was better worded and met the intent of the initiative, it could be chosen as the one to go on the ballot. He added that the legislators hadn't been the best proposition writers either, and the courts had even, on occasion, thrown out ballot propositions from the legislature because the intent wasn't clear. REPRESENTATIVE ROBINSON requested an example of what type of initiatives could be sponsored by the people, and where the stopping point of these constitutional initiatives was. She wondered if they could bring up just anything? Number 498 REPRESENTATIVE MARTIN replied that they most certainly could bring up whatever they wanted. It was, after all, their government, but he cautioned there would be checkpoints along the process; one of the main ones would be the Lt. Governor's office. He said citizens weren't expected to know the constitution or the procedures like legislators were, and they might get angry and propose something that wasn't workable. Thus, there were checkpoints along the way to tone down outrageous initiatives. He also added that we could get an idea of what type of issues might be brought up by looking at the history of states, such as California, that allow the initiative process. CHAIR JAMES responded that currently the citizens of Alaska could change the law by initiative, just not the constitution. She added if the legislature puts out a ballot issue that is not a constitutional mandate, then it is only an advisory vote, which the legislature can choose to follow or reject. She also commented that almost every organization has a committee to review its bylaws, because life changes and things need to be modified. So, she said, it is evident that we need a method to change our constitution. The question is what is the best way and what is the best way to represent the people. She added it was never a mistake to ask the people, but the people had to be informed of the issue. She said sometimes the information given to the people was misleading or overwhelming in favor of one side or the other. REPRESENTATIVE PORTER informed the committee that over the interim there was a constitutional amendment commission formed, which resulted in a request for legislation to form a citizens committee to review requests for constitutional amendments coming from the public or the legislature. He added there would be checks and balances in the system, such as having the judiciary committees in both the House and Senate review the requests and modify them as necessary to put them in there proper form. Thus, there have been steps to try and get more citizens involved in the process, but short of the initiative process, he said. REPRESENTATIVE MARTIN said several states had tried this method, and that currently two states included having commission review as a step in the initiative process. He said, though, the final decision was still left up to the people, not the legislature. He said what he was trying to do was to knock down the barriers to the people; adding that, of the 500 or so proposed initiatives, there was really only 20 or so that kept getting brought up because the legislature wouldn't pass the issue. He also stated the biggest thing that was always brought up was fear, fear, fear and reminded the committee of the fear that the Founding Fathers must have felt during the Revolutionary War with the British. He said they had to constantly remind themselves of what they were fighting for - the right of the individual citizen over government. He further stated that people shouldn't judge Anchorage as being white, middle-class, because he could remember when he represented the largest Native village in Alaska in Mountain View, and could remember seeing fish wheels and catch in their backyards and having to fight for their subsistence rights. He added if you wanted a divisive community on any issue, it was Anchorage. He went on to state the groups opposed to the constitutional convention always used fear, fear, fear as a tactic, and we shouldn't fear change, but should have faith. CHAIR JAMES called for a break so Representative Green and Representative Porter could attend to some urgent business. She called the meeting back to order shortly before 9 a.m. Number 625 REPRESENTATIVE OGAN called for an amendment to line 17, page 2 of the resolution to require a two-thirds majority of votes to pass a constitutional amendment. CHAIR JAMES called for comments on the proposed amendment. REPRESENTATIVE MARTIN objected saying history had proven that such a large majority being required guaranteed minority rule, and this was the exact opposite of representative democracy. He pointed out that if legislators needed a two-thirds vote to get elected, not many of them would be there. He also pointed out the initiative process is a long process, requiring large public input. He said it would be over a year-long process, requiring input from the legislature. He said a two-thirds majority requirement was simply too large, and it simply defied the wonderful experience of our democracy. CHAIR JAMES allowed Representative Ogan to respond. REPRESENTATIVE OGAN said he wanted a two-thirds majority requirement because he felt the constitution shouldn't be so easy to change according to the popular ideas and political doctrines of the day. He said we needed to have this protection for minority viewpoints, and that an overwhelming majority should be required to amend the constitution. REPRESENTATIVE GREEN said he could appreciate the sentiments of Representative Ogan, but pointed out that in the 17 years he had lived in Alaska, we had yet to elect a governor with even a simple majority, and that such a large majority being required would just ensure that no amendments would ever be made via the initiative process. CHAIR JAMES commented that there was a difference between voting for a candidate and an issue, in that an issue was simply a yes/no vote. She said there was only two choices. Whereas with candidates there were many choices to choose from. REPRESENTATIVE PORTER agreed, saying there were remedies to getting a majority vote for candidates and he would support those proposals as well as this amendment. He said he agreed with Representative Ogan in that the constitution shouldn't be something that could be tinkered with so easily. He stated he recognized there were safeguards put in, including the requirement of a legislative review, but they could only change the wording, not the intent of a particular initiative. REPRESENTATIVE WILLIS agreed that the constitution must require more than a simple majority to be changed, and a two-thirds majority requirement would offer this protection. He said he would support this amendment to the resolution. REPRESENTATIVE MARTIN said the original constitutional convention made decisions by a simple majority, and it was a simple majority that elected the delegates. He added that it was barely a simple majority that voted for the constitution itself. He said that two-thirds was simply an astronomical number, which was simply impossible to achieve. He cited the sixty percent requirement to increase the tax cap in Anchorage as an example. He stated if the committee wanted to kill the resolution, then they would succeed with a two-thirds majority requirement, because no initiative in the country would ever succeed in getting a two-thirds majority approval. TAPE 95-3, SIDE B Number 000 CHAIR JAMES asked if there was some other number between fifty and sixty-six percent that would be reasonable and attainable. REPRESENTATIVE MARTIN replied that no number this high would be achievable when talking about a citizen initiative. He said the constitution was never meant to be sacred; it was simply an agreement between the citizens and those that were elected to govern. He said the Alaska Constitution was so limiting in so many ways, that it defied democracy. He said the more that it was brought out to the people, they would see that they didn't have that many rights in this state. CHAIR JAMES questioned Representative Martin as to how he would respond that it took a two-thirds majority of the legislature to pass a constitutional amendment. REPRESENTATIVE MARTIN replied this was because the people didn't trust their legislators. Number 080 CHAIR JAMES called for a roll call vote of the committee regarding the proposed amendment to the resolution. Representatives James, Ogan, Ivan, Porter, Robinson and Willis voted in favor of the amendment. Representative Green voted against the amendment; so the amendment passed. Number 095 REPRESENTATIVE MARTIN requested the resolution be held, saying that with the new amendment, it was a worthless issue unless he could get more information to persuade the committee otherwise. CHAIR JAMES responded that she would hold the resolution, but urged Representative Martin to try and find some percentage that was agreeable over fifty percent, so he could get the needed support to pass it through the legislature. She asked whether he would be ready for the next committee meeting or if he wanted to make another request for a new hearing. REPRESENTATIVE MARTIN responded that he needed to talk with constitutional experts, and would prefer to make another request. He said a two-thirds majority was just too high of a requirement in order for this resolution to be effective. CHAIR JAMES replied that she personally agreed with him, but she thought that in order to get the needed support to get it passed through the legislature, he would need to find some percentage between fifty and sixty-six percent. She reiterated that the committee would hold the resolution until he said what he wanted the committee to do with it. CHAIR JAMES said the next item on the agenda was HB 70.