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Why can Alaska lawmakers vote with conflicts of interest?

Laurel Andrews
Protesters with "Backbone" assemble near the Alaska Legislature Information office in downtown Anchorage to protest SB21. April 4, 2013
Courtesy Clark James Mishler
Protesters with "Backbone" in Homer burn a $5.5 Billion check in protest of SB21. April 4, 2013
Courtesy Bob Shavelson
Katie Hurley addresses protesters with "Backbone" as they assemble near the Alaska Legislature Information office in downtown Anchorage to protest SB21. April 4, 2013
Courtesy Clark James Mishler
Protesters with "Backbone" in Homer burn a $5.5 Billion check in protest of SB21. April 4, 2013
Courtesy Bob Shavelson
Protesters with "Backbone" assemble near the Alaska Legislature Information office in downtown Anchorage to protest SB21. April 4, 2013
Courtesy Clark James Mishler
Protesters with "Backbone" assemble near the Alaska Legislature Information office in downtown Anchorage to protest SB21. April 4, 2013
Courtesy Clark James Mishler
Protesters with "Backbone" assemble near the Alaska Legislature Information office in downtown Anchorage to protest SB21. April 4, 2013
Courtesy Clark James Mishler

As the Alaska House of Representatives debates whether to slash billions of dollars in oil taxes, some Alaskans are questioning how the legislation got through the Senate.

Late last month, the Senate voted 11-9 in favor reducing oil taxes. Among the senators who voted for the cut were Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, and Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna -- both employees of ConocoPhillips, Alaska's largest oil producer and one of the largest beneficiaries of the proposed tax cut.

Meyer and Micciche asked to be recused from the vote, citing perceived conflicts of interest due to their jobs. But their requests were met with objections from other senators, and under the current rules, each was required to vote. This practice is not uncommon in the Alaska Legislature. But is it time to rethink the procedure?

“I don’t think any legislator wants to be in that position,” said state Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage. “Let’s just change it.”

As the legislative session winds down, Wielechowski plans to introduce a bill that would overhaul the rules on when and how lawmakers can recuse themselves from votes due to possible conflicts of interest.

“Alaska is an outlier in the way we do this,” he said. “Most states say if you have a conflict, you don’t vote, period.”

Forced to vote

Under the Uniform Rules of the Alaska Legislature, a lawmaker can request to abstain from voting on a bill. That's what the Conoco employees did when the oil tax legislation -- Senate Bill 21 -- came to the floor.

Meyer cited a “perceived conflict of interest” and asked to be recused. Micciche made the same request, noting that he had “an employer in the natural gas industry.” Micciche works as a superintendent at Conoco's liquefied natural gas facility in Kenai, earning between $100,000 and $200,000 a year, according to his disclosures filed with the state. Meyer, earns between $50,000 and $100,000 at Conoco when the Legislature is not in session.

However, the Uniform Rules state a legislator’s recusal requires unanimous consent from their colleagues. Multiple objections were heard over Meyer's and Micciche’s recusal, requiring both to vote on the bill.

But there is another recourse for abstaining from a vote, one that neither Micciche nor Meyer took: Walking out.

Legislators can be absent from the floor, thereby not casting any vote, simply by leaving. Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, then from Kodiak, walked off the House floor in 2008 rather than be forced to vote on in issue in which she had a conflict of interest. The year before, former Rep. Vic Kohring, R-Wasilla, didn’t show for a vote on the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act days after being indicted on federal charges of taking bribes from the owner of an oil-field services company.

To curtail this practice, a legislator can issue a “call on the House,” requiring every legislator without an excused absence to be present. The sergeant-at-arms will track down missing legislators before the vote is made.

Micciche said he wasn’t aware walking out was an option, and even if he had known, he would have stuck around to vote. “I have not missed a single vote, not missed a single committee meeting," he said. “If the rules of serving in the Legislature are made clear… those are the rules I am going to follow.”

A conflict of interest, or not?

While Micciche and Meyer asked to be recused, both have maintained that there was no conflict of interest in voting on SB21, simply a perceived ethical issue.

In an email interview, Micciche pointed out that he requested a formal advisory opinion from the Legislative Ethics Committee, which reviewed his outside employment and didn't find any conflicts with his Conoco job. “There was not an actual conflict in the case of SB 21, but I can understand where the perception of a conflict could exist for folks unfamiliar with the [Ethics] Act,” he wrote.

The Legislative Ethics Committee, which is tasked with administering the Legislative Ethics Act, looked at Micciche’s three jobs outside the Legislature -- commercial fishing, rental property and his employment with Conoco.

In regards to his Conoco job, the opinion stated that “other than a relatively small amount of company stock shares, the legislator did not have an equity or ownership interest in the company or the industry.” It also found that he had no interest greater than any other salaried employee in the oil industry. That means any legislation would affect his position at Conoco in the same way as most others working in the industry. If Micciche held equity or ownership in Conoco, he could potentially be barred from voting on a bill under the ethics act.

Meyer did not return multiple calls asking for comment on the subject.

Wielechowski acknowledges the difficulty in balancing the right to recuse oneself due to a conflict of interest, versus recusing oneself to avoid making tough decisions.

“We’re trying to deal with the criticism that people are trying to duck votes,” he said. “There have got to be some parameters.”

His bill may require that a recusal request be overturned only if the majority of legislators voice objections, instead of allowing only one objection to force the vote.

Bruce Botelho -- a former state attorney general and former mayor of Juneau, said the current procedures may affect how the public views its elected officials.

“The public’s confidence in their Legislature is tied to directly to their sense that the Legislature is working both individually and collectively on behalf of the state,” Botelho said. “A better practice would be to allow legislators to recuse themselves.”

The concern on the other side is that recusing oneself could become “a way of avoiding having to make tough decisions,” Botelho explained. “We also expect legislators to take stands on issues.”

Meyer made a similar argument last week, stating that his 70,000 constituents would lose their voice on an important bill were he to abstain. "You'd have a population the size of Fairbanks being totally disenfranchised down in Juneau," he told Alaska Dispatch.

Former Alaska attorney general John Havelock expressed skepticism over the Legislature’s procedures. “What were they supposed to do, vote against their employer?”

“They needed the vote to pass the bill,” he added. “It’s outrageous that they should be required to vote.”

Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com