By James Brooks
Alaska Beacon 

Initiative signature drives will start for campaign limits, higher minimum wage

 

September 27, 2023 | View PDF



Lt. Gov. Nancy Dahlstrom has approved signature gathering for two ballot measures and disqualified a third from advancing to that next phase.

The two measures — if they gather enough petition signatures for a spot on the ballot and then win voter approval — would impose new financial limits 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, such as a Republican-only or Democrat-only primary, 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 state House districts before the Legislature convenes in January.

Sponsors of the rejected measure intended that it serve as a backstop to guarantee nonpartisan primary elections in case Alaska’s ranked-choice election system is repealed, but in a legal analysis the state Department of Law said that the measure would have violated Alaska’s constitutional ban on ballot measures that allocate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 measure last month that would have imposed term limits on legislators.

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.

The 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 ranked-choice 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.

One of the two measures approved by Dahlstrom for signature gathering 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 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 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.

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.

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.

The second measure approved for signature gathering 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.

The Alaska Beacon is an independent, donor-funded news organization. Alaskabeacon.com.

 

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