Alaska legislators would vote on conflicts of interest under proposal

Rep. Donna Mears
Rep. Donna Mears, D-Anchorage, speaks on an amendment to the state budget on Monday, April 3, 2023, at the Alaska State Capitol in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

A group of first-year members of the Alaska House of Representatives introduced a resolution at the end of the legislative session that would reform the rules for how conflicts of interest for lawmakers are addressed. 

The group, known as the Freshman Caucus, proposed changing the unanimous voting system required to prevent a legislator with a conflict of interest from voting. Under the proposal, every time a legislator declares they have a conflict of interest on a bill or resolution, a vote would be held to determine whether they would be required to vote. Currently, the rules state that when a legislator asks not to vote on an issue due to a conflict of interest, they still must vote as long as one legislator objects.

What prompted this resolution was a discussion within the Freshman Caucus, Rep. Donna Mears, D-Anchorage said.

“It came out in conversation that our observation was that the process we have now for conflict of interest is ineffective and ridiculous,” she said. “Once I brought it up as an issue there was a pretty quick consensus it was something my colleagues would support.”

A news release by the Freshman Caucus said: “This system has the appearance of guarding against conflicts of interest, but in practice, it does no such thing.”

Legislative researchers were unable to find a single instance under the current rules, in place since 1969, in which a member was excused from voting due to a conflict of interest.

Additionally, Mears noted, “There’s certainly folks in the Capitol Building, and the Legislature that have been around a long time, and nobody can remember anyone ever getting excused.” 

The resolution was introduced on May 8 and was referred to the House Rules Committee.  

House Rules Committee Chair Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, said he hasn’t looked closely at the proposal. But he said that the current system works. 

“I think it’s important people know there’s a conflict and declaring it on the floor and putting it on the record is a good thing,” Johnson said.

Although Johnson stated he was not familiar with the resolution due to its late introduction, he noted, “We are a citizen-led Legislature, and I don’t think that you can do anything as a citizen-legislator if you’ve got a job that’s not going to be involved in some sort of conflict.” 

Mears has a different view. “Well, right now with the conflict of interest process when someone arises to declare a conflict, they don’t even finish stating what the conflict is and it doesn’t get out on the record once that objection happens. Then that’s the end of the conversation,” Mears said. 

She said that at the very least, the resolution would allow conflicts to get out into the open and for the public to know about them.

“So, at the very least what this will do is allow those conflicts to get out into the open and out for the public to know what these conflicts are.”

 Mears also said that not only does she hope this will allow the public to understand the conflicts of their legislators, but also help other members of the Legislature become more aware of potential conflicts. 

“We don’t know what everybody’s business is, or family business is, and being aware of things, you know, I think is important,” Mears said. 

This resolution may be considered next year in the legislative session.

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