Lawmakers strike compromise on scaling back conflict of interest restrictions

Rep. Chris Tuck,  D-Anchorage, discusses SB 89, a bill that would change the law regarding conflicts of interest involving legislators, family members, employers and potential employers, on Monday. He spoke during a free conference committee made up of members of both the House and the Senate at the Capitol in Juneau. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

The Alaska Legislature is close to passing a bill that would change the conflict of interest law passed last year. It would limit the number of cases that require lawmakers to disclose conflicts.

The Senate passed an earlier version of the bill, which would have repealed the conflict of interest provisions entirely. The House passed its own version, and a conference committee agreed on the compromise Monday.

Anchorage Democratic Rep. Chris Tuck described how the bill scales back the cases where lawmakers have to declare conflicts.

“Conflicts are going to be reduced,” he said. “But when you do have a conflict, we’re basically tying that person’s hands all the way for any type of legislative action.”

The bill would continue to bar lawmakers from taking action to financially benefit themselves or their spouses, as well as their current employer or an employer that they’re negotiating with.

But it would no longer cover other family members, or anyone who pays the legislator or their family at least $10,000 in the previous year.

And it also only affects cases where the benefit is greater for the lawmaker, their spouse or their employers than it is for their broader profession, industry or region. For example, a lawmaker who’s a doctor could vote on a bill that benefits all doctors, but not on one that benefits only those who specialize in the kind of medicine the lawmaker practices.

Members of a free conference committee, made up of members of both the House and the Senate, discuss SB 89, a bill that would change the law regarding conflicts of interest involving legislators, family members, employers and potential employers, on Monday. The meeting was held in the Capitol in Juneau. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

North Pole Republican Sen. John Coghill said it’s rare that lawmakers would have a conflict under the changes. But he said the bill is needed, because last year’s law was unclear.

“In the case(s) that we’ve been dealing with for years, hardly ever have we seen a clear-cut case where they are going to either get a job, aggrandize a company or themselves specifically. But this at least makes that clear,” Coghill said.

The Select Committee on Legislative Ethics ruled that the law passed last year bars lawmakers from talking with constituents about pending bills if they have a conflict. The new bill explicitly says the law isn’t intended to restrict the ability of lawmakers and constituents to meet.

League of Women Voters Alaska President Judy Andree supported last year’s law and expressed concerns about the Senate seeking to repeal the new restrictions. She’s worried the bill won’t cover legislators’ children. But she said it’s good that lawmakers reached a compromise.

“I would not be opposed to them passing the agreed-upon changes, because it is better than what we had before,” Andree said.

The bill now goes back to both the Senate and the House for final votes.


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