Legislature(2021 - 2022)BUTROVICH 205
05/10/2021 01:30 PM JUDICIARY
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SB 31-PROHIBITING BINDING CAUCUSES 1:40:05 PM CHAIR HOLLAND reconvened the meeting and announced the consideration of SENATE BILL NO. 31, "An Act relating to binding votes by or for a legislator under the Legislative Ethics Act." [CSSB 31(STA) was before the committee. This is the first hearing on the bill.] 1:40:49 PM SENATOR SHOWER, speaking as sponsor, paraphrased the sponsor statement: SB 31 addresses the ethics statute and bans the practice commonly known as a "binding caucus." The tradition of the binding caucus in the Alaska State Legislature has been used to suppress the voice of the people, the use of coercion and enticements to manipulate the actions and votes of their elected Representative or Senator. The caucuses are formed with the enticement of perks of being a majority member, including but not limited to influence within the organization, chairmanships of important committees, better office space, more staff to help you be effective. All of these are not nefarious on their face, but as applied in the binding caucus, they are exchanged for the participating Representative(s) or Senator(s) vote on key issues such as the budget. 1:41:57 PM AS 24.60.039(g)(1) "Caucus" means a group of legislators that share a political philosophy or have a common goal or who organize as a group. Ultimately it is a caucus of ideas. Because it does not state the use of coercion or enticements are not prohibited should not be misconstrued that it is permissible, especially since these two activities are prohibited for private citizens under Alaska criminal statutes. 1:42:23 PM SENATOR SHOWER continued to paraphrase the sponsor statement: Where the nefarious intent creeps in is the quid-pro- quo required to join the club. In exchange for the "enticement" of the associated perks, under a binding caucus, a legislator is expected to blindly vote for a budget before it exists and has never seen that a small group of "leadership" members supports. It has also been used as an arbitrary tool for supporting any floor vote the presiding officer decides is a "procedural vote." SENATOR SHOWER related his own experience with binding caucus requirements. 1:44:25 PM Control of legislators through a binding caucus consolidates power into a tiny group of legislators, those in leadership, the presiding officer, the majority leader, the rules chair, the finance co- chairs. When a caucus member capitulates to the pressure, their constituents are compromised. When a caucus member is "disciplined," it also disenfranchises that elected official that the voters put into the majority party. 1:45:40 PM This practice is only accepted in the State of Alaska. The sponsor contacted a Senator from 49 other states, and all but one stated they do not use or permit the practice of a binding caucus in their state. SENATOR SHOWER related several scenarios from other states. 1:48:11 PM Public pressure has forced the Senate to not organize under the binding caucus. It's time to codify this unethical practice of forcing legislators to vote against their conscience, and ultimately their constituents. If the 49 other states in the union can do business without a binding caucus and coercion to pass legislation, Alaska can too. 1:48:19 PM SENATOR SHOWER offered his view that the rest of the country operates without binding caucuses so he believes it will work here. 1:49:10 PM SENATOR SHOWER provided the sectional analysis for SB 31. He read: Section 1; Adds the definition of a "caucus" and "legislative body" to the guidelines of the open meetings Act under the legislatures ethics code. Section 2; Creates the ethics violation of binding another legislator to commit their vote on any matter that may come before the legislature. Clarifies that voting for selecting an officer or leader of a legislative body is an allowable practice. It also clarifies that running an informal poll, aka as a "chit sheet," is an allowable practice. 1:49:40 PM SENATOR KIEHL stated that forming minority and majority caucuses also will determine staff levels. He asked if it is ethical to form caucuses if members are disenfranchised. SENATOR SHOWER pointed out the caucus of the whole includes everyone. He acknowledged that members in the majority have control, that the legislature has had a majority and minority, which are formed by ideology rather than by party. This system has worked. However, Alaska has an extra, binding rule. He offered his view that using the binding rule to punish legislators over a vote is not how the power structure has been used. He agreed it could be argued that minority members are disenfranchised but they are not punished. He said the goal is to avoid the ability to influence someone's vote. SENATOR HUGHES said that what occurred actually gave majority members fewer committee assignments. It eliminated their access to legal advice from majority staff, including access to oil and gas staff expertise, and a voice at the table since members were ignored. She agreed that staff assignments relate to committee assignments. However, minority members were listened to, had the freedom to vote and had more resources. She offered her belief that the retribution went beyond the basics given to minority members. 1:54:16 PM CHAIR HOLLAND offered his view that the public sends a majority to the legislature through their collective votes. The majority controls the body, organizes the body as opposed to the binding caucus exerting control over its members. 1:54:54 PM SENATOR SHOWER added that he is not concerned about the broader power structure the legislature uses via Uniform Rules and Mason's Manual. However, he witnessed power being wielded by a very small group who used it to coerce others by requiring a binding vote. He said the Senate leadership told members on July 29, 2019 that voting against the caucus would result in them being stripped of their committee chair and committee membership. He said the legislature should not require representatives of the people to vote against the will of their constituencies. 1:56:25 PM SENATOR KIEHL offered his view that the system he described was a parliamentary system. Voters elect individuals to represent them. He said he appreciated the sponsor's description of how the legislature organizes. If a legislator does not agree with the philosophy or organizing principles, the person will be treated as the sponsor suggested. It has happened that it sometimes puts the person in a group that it is less than 25 percent of the body. If so, under the Uniform Rules, it would affect the legislator's staffing, office space and privileges, he said. Those legislators would not have access to Legislative Legal Services, and their own oil and gas person, but he did not think of it as coercion. 1:58:04 PM SENATOR MYERS referred to the bill. He related his understanding that a legislator may not commit or bind another legislator to vote. He suggested this language will leave the possibility of offering perks such as additional staff or a bigger office. However, it does not affect legislators during organizing the legislature. He asked if the sponsor would like to add language to address that timeframe. SENATOR SHOWER said he did not wish to expand the bill to take on the whole structure. He did not have any issue with leadership roles or committee chair agreements. He said his issue was the binding caucus. He was not sure how to address organizing principles in this bill. He pointed out that it is a felony to bribe a politician to vote in a certain way, although that is effectively what happened. He said that there is nothing wrong with procedural votes, but he is opposed to them being wielded as political weapons. 2:01:45 PM SENATOR KIEHL said he is not a fan of binding caucuses, that he did not join one. He said that each presiding officer polls its members to determine if the legislature should call itself into special session. He asked if this informal poll was covered in the bill. SENATOR SHOWER responded that polling or informal discussions were acceptable since it allows leadership to obtain a sense of support similar to a legislator using a chit sheet to assess support for a bill. He said that since it would not affect someone's vote on the floor, it was irrelevant. He maintained his concern about binding caucus actions. 2:04:03 PM SENATOR KIEHL asked how to make this effective and prevent a situation in which members in a caucus meeting are told that this is a key vote. For example, leadership could take an informal poll and watch to see who votes against it. SENATOR SHOWER responded that some states indicated they have a binding rule on procedural votes but none included budget votes as procedural ones. He envisioned the speaker or president might not like the vote but they cannot take away a legislator's chairmanship or staff. 2:06:50 PM SENATOR KIEHL said he just got lost. If a presiding officer or leadership team develops a reputation for taking some action, everyone will know that something will be done afterwards. SENATOR SHOWER said the difference is the binding rule. He was unsure how to intervene in politics. 2:08:14 PM SENATOR MYERS recalled debating the Open Meetings Act by adding in a penalty provision. He wondered who will enforce SB 11 without a penalty provision in the bill. SENATOR SHOWER answered that if the statutes codified that binding rules were prohibited, it would give the legislator standing to sue. He suggested it was possible to change the Uniform Rules. Currently, there is not any recourse, he said. He said he would like to keep the bill simple. SB 11 would make it illegal. He said that he is open to suggestions. 2:10:38 PM SENATOR HUGHES referred to language on line 8 that states that a legislator "may not commit." She said legislators may go to town halls and inform constituents how they will vote on an issue. She asked whether "commit" should be defined. She wondered if it could be problematic, even in debate on the floor. SENATOR SHOWER answered that this language will specifically limit the restrictions to legislators and would not pertain to constituents. 2:12:44 PM SENATOR HUGHES suggested that the omission of commas may take care of the concern. She suggested that Legislative Legal Services could clarify if this language could be interpreted in another way. SENATOR SHOWER stated his intent for the bill was to address the binding caucus that allows legislators to punish other legislators. 2:14:14 PM CHAIR HOLLAND held SB 31 in committee.
|SB 11 Legal Memo.pdf||
SJUD 5/10/2021 1:30:00 PM