Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Alaska State Legislature Waffles On Same-Sex Benefits Amendment Advisory Vote

Several members of the Alaska State Legislature are now questioning the wisdom of holding a public advisory vote on employment benefits for same-sex partners of public employees, despite the fact that $175,000 has already been committed to the vote and ballots have already been printed. Original story published in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner on February 7th, 2007. Additional story aired on KTUU Channel 2 on February 6th.

The proposed initiative is already posted on the Alaska Division of Elections website. Here is the specific language:


Shall the legislature adopt a proposed amendment to the state constitution to be considered by the voters at the 2008 general election that would prohibit the state, or a municipality or other subdivision of the state, from providing employment benefits to same-sex partners of public employees and to same-sex partners of public employee retirees?

Note that the prohibition would apply only to public employees. Private-sector employees, even if operating as contractors for public employers, would NOT be affected.

The vote, scheduled for April 3rd, is meant to advise lawmakers on whether they should propose an amendment to the state Constitution at the 2008 general election that would block the state and municipalities from offering the benefits. However, holding the vote is expected to cost the state $1.2 million (ironically, the state government projects that payment of same-sex benefits could also reach $1.2 million this year). And this has aroused the opposition of Rep. Mike Doogan (D-Anchorage), who is sponsoring a bill aimed at stopping the vote from happening. “I think $1.2 million is a heck of a lot of money to spend on a public opinion poll,” he said. Doogan believes the same objective could be met for a fraction of the cost by hiring a pollster. Doogan also deplores this circuitous process and would prefer for lawmakers to quit beating around the bush and subject a prospective amendment to a straight up-or-down vote. "If the people who want to deny benefits to same-sex partners think they've got the votes to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot, then they should put up a constitutional amendment and we'll vote on it," Doogan stated.

Doogan (pictured at left, courtesy of KTUU) also philosophically opposes amending the constitution to exclude same-sex couples from receiving spousal benefits, claiming it would strip a constitutionally protected right, but said he was pushing the bill because he thought the advisory vote was not worth its cost. Many of his constituents think the vote is “ridiculous,” he said. In the November 2008 election, Doogan swamped Republican challenger Thomas Lamb by 40 percentage points, so Doogan may well authoritatively reflect the sentiment of his district.

Doogan said he submitted his bill and expected it to be read across the House floor today. The bill would work by stipulating that the vote couldn’t happen unless the Legislature made a special appropriation for it. Meanwhile, the state’s Division of Elections has already spent about $175,000 preparing for the vote, according to division Director Whitney Brewster.

Brewster stated that 374,500 ballots have been printed and advance ballots have already been mailed. In addition, a contract for the voter pamphlet will be awarded Friday, and contracts for transporting ballots will be settled starting next week.

Brewster further stated that the division was required to go ahead with the vote even without an appropriation by the Legislature, which passed a bill last year setting up the advisory vote but hasn’t yet appropriated money for it. “We will continue moving forward with the election as we are required to do under law,” Brewster said. If lawmakers want to avoid further costs associated with the vote, they should act fast, she added.

Gov. Sarah Palin, who signed the bill into law, is asking lawmakers to appropriate funds through a supplemental budget request. At press conferences this morning, House Democrats and members of the Senate Majority both expressed sympathy for the idea of rethinking the April 3 vote. “I think there’s something to the second thoughts,” said Senate President Lyda Green (R-Wasilla).

Senate Minority Leader Gene Therriault (R-North Pole), said he supported the advisory vote last year and would probably vote to amend the constitution, but was open to hearing arguments over whether the vote should be postponed or canceled.

Rep. John Coghill (R-North Pole), who sponsored the bill setting up the advisory vote, said he still wanted the vote to go forward but was concerned about the timing and cost and said he was “open to suggestion” on the issue. “I must confess I’ve been truly conflicted,” he said. With all the attention being paid to ethics reform and the natural gas pipeline, people might not get a good look at the issue, he added. Coghill's waffling seems ironic, considering that he is one of the "radicals" who wanted Governor Palin to defy the Alaska Supreme Court and refuse to implement its decision, which could have provoked a constitutional showdown between two branches of government.

House Speaker John Harris (R-Valdez) was less sympathetic toward Doogan’s argument. “His bill isn’t going to pass,” he said, “because we don’t agree with it.” Harris, who supports amending the constitution, said the advisory vote was important in giving lawmakers a sense of public feeling on the issue. Lawmakers who are reluctant to propose an amendment in 2008 might change their minds if they saw the public supported it, he said. And Harris pulls considerable weight in the State House; Republicans like Nancy Dahlstrom and Bob Lynn who have defied the Republican majority and voted their consciences in the past paid political prices for their defiance.

The director of the Alaska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, whose lawsuit led to the Supreme Court decision on same-sex benefits, welcomed the apparent change in the legislature. "If it is a question about whether it is worthwhile to have the advisory vote or not, and if people that had been for it before are now opposed to it, we are glad to have them on our side," said ACLU director Michael Macleod-Ball.

A two-thirds majority in the House and Senate is required to put the amendment on the ballot in 2008.

In a February 2nd post discussing the recent Michigan Court of Appeals' decision to uphold their state's ban on same-sex benefits, the Eagle Forum Alaska blog discusses the difference between Alaska's gay marriage ban vs. Michigan's ban:

The different rulings can be traced directly to the wording of the respective marriage amendments. In 1998, Alaskans voted to add the words “To be valid or recognized in this State, a marriage may exist only between one man and one woman”. Short and to the point. In 2004, Michiganders added a more verbose “the union of one man and one woman in marriage shall be the only agreement recognized as a marriage or similar union for any purpose.” The final 6 words make all the difference.

Compare the two amendments and see for yourself.

Click to See Michigan Amendment

Click to See Alaskan Amendment

Analysis: Doogan's first idea actually makes some sense. Why not temporarily delay this issue and hire a respected, accurate pollster like Dave Dittman to conduct a poll at a fraction of the cost? Of course, there's the matter of the 374,500 ballots already printed, but if the combined costs of those ballots and a poll would be less than the cost of a special advisory vote, it would certainly save money. However, considering John Harris' influence in the State House, Doogan's initiative is likely to fail.

From an integrity standpoint, Doogan's second idea make even more sense. Instead of hiding behind procedures and polls, why doesn't the State Legislature have the guts to expose themselves and actually put a prospective amendment to an up-or-down vote? This is where the legislature appears to be waffling. Lawmakers are not elected merely to reflect public opinion; we can buy 60 microphones to do that just as well. Lawmakers are also elected to shape, mold, and direct public opinion, then craft laws best reflecting the public interest.

Another question to consider: Should the State Legislature merely rewrite the existing amendment to include the Michigan phrase "or similar union for any purpose", or should they write a completely separate amendment?

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1 comment:

  1. Anyone that thinks that Homo's should get the same benefits as a MARRIED or non homo is an idiot. They are more at risk for disease than a junkie due to thier sexual proclivities. AIDS and hep c are big time fag killers and I don't want my money going toward treatment of thier problem. AIDS is a plague from GOD. Let them pay for the cure on Judgement day. And remember that God made Adam and Eve and not Adam and Steve.