Alaskan Ownership Stake Part IV:
"Restoring Constitutional Integrity"
Frequently Asked Questions
As part of my continuing series called "The Alaskan Ownership Stake", I am unveiling Part IV of the Stake: Restoring Constitutional Integrity. Specifically, Part IV addresses the need to restore accountability in the Governor's office, and reclaim our stake in ethical, transparent government.
Alaskans have a clear stake in making sure our government acts in accordance with the highest ethical standards. Part IV is an attempt to build the institutional safeguards needed to ensure that the actions of our Executive Branch officials comply with these basic, constitutionally bound notions, thus restoring integrity to our state government.
To recap, Part I of the stake would allow individual Alaskans, Alaskan businesses and Alaska Native Corporations to Own a Piece of the Pipe, giving Alaskans an ownership stake in our economic future. Part II would create Lifetime Licenses for Hunting, Fishing and Trapping, thereby allowing Alaskans to stake their claim in Alaska's hunting and fishing resources. Part III, Open for Business, would reduce taxes on small businesses making less than $90,000 per year and drop Alaska's current corporate income tax rate from 9.4% down to 4.9%, moving us from the 5th worst tax regime to the 8th most competitive tax structure in the United States.
Q. What are you proposing?
A. I am proposing a three-part plan to restore ethics and integrity to the Executive Branch. First, I will seek to change the way the Alaska Attorney General is nominated and retained. Second, as part of the plan to insure the Attorney General's independence and eliminate conflicts of interest, we will adopt the practice used in almost all other states – establish a legal counsel to provide the legal services that are direct and personal to the Governor and separate from the legal and ethical obligations of the Attorney General, whose duty lies to the people of the State of Alaska. Third, I will seek changes to the structure of the Alaska Personnel Board and its operations. The changes I seek will remove the ability for political games to be played within those offices.
Q. Why are you proposing changes to the Office of the Attorney General?
A. As Alaskans know all too well, we need to clean up our system of judicial and personnel oversight. The Attorney General, Alaska's "Top Cop", must have the independence and freedom to pursue the policies and legal actions that are in the best legal interest of Alaskans. The way the Attorney General's office is currently defined on his website, the AG's stated mission is to serve "as the legal advisor for the Governor and other state officers, prosecute all violations of state criminal law, and enforce the consumer protection and unfair trade practices laws." (emphasis added). Because the Attorney General is ethically obligated to serve both the Governor and the people of the State of Alaska, there is too much room for conflict and abuse.
Unfortunately, Alaskans have seen this abuse many times over the course of the previous administrations. Most recently, Sean Parnell violated the Alaska Constitution twice by hiring two sitting legislators for state jobs created just for them. The Alaska Constitution is very clear on the fact that these actions were unconstitutional.
Article II, Section 5 states:
"No legislator may hold any other office or position of profit under the United States or the State. During the term for which elected and for one year thereafter, no legislator may be nominated, elected, or appointed to any other office or position of profit which has been created, or the salary or emoluments of which have been increased, while he was a member. This section shall not prevent any person from seeking or holding the office of Governor, secretary of state, or member of Congress. This section shall not apply to employment by or election to a constitutional convention."
The constitution is clear. The letter of the law in the Alaska Constitution, the intent of the law, and the spirit of the law are designed to protect Alaskans from the corruptive and alluring power that is often inherent in government. Alaskans have witnessed too much corruption, backroom deals, cozy relationships and efforts to skirt the clear intent of the law for personal or political gain. It is in the interests of all Alaskans and our system of government that all future Governors answer to the people of Alaska through an independent AG, rather than getting an AG to issue opinions to provide cover for the Governor's questionable actions.
Q. How would your proposed changes impact the Attorney General?
A. I will seek to make the Attorney General independent of the whims or dictates of the Governor by seeking a change in the office of Attorney General whereby the Governor nominates an individual for that position. As is currently the case, that individual would be confirmed by the State Legislature acting in joint session. Upon being approved by the legislature, the Attorney General will hold that office for the remainder of the Governor's term. The AG would NOT be able to be removed from office by the Governor. He or she would act as an independent arm of the government not subject to the influence of the Governor's office or any other office. He or she will be free to pursue those legal actions and policies that are in the best legal interest of Alaska. The Governor will NOT be able to fire the AG under this scenario. Under this approach the AG could only be removed for malfeasance, misappropriation or any other specifically enumerated illegal action that applies to all other state employees, including a violation of the ethics code.
Q. What would happen at the end of the Governor's term?
A. If a Governor were to leave office, then the AG's tenure would end. The new Governor would able to nominate a new person for confirmation by the legislature. If a Governor were re-elected, he or she would be required to submit a candidate for AG for his or her second term of office. A Governor who supports how the AG has handled their duties will be able to re-nominate that person for the job again.
Q. How do other states select their AG's?
A. Alaska is one of only a handful of states where the AG is not elected. 44 states elect their AG's to multi-year terms. In four states - Alaska, Hawaii, New Jersey and Wyoming – have appointed AGs. In Maine the State Legislature nominates their AG, while in Tennessee the State Supreme Court nominates the Tennessee AG.
Q. Why not propose having an elected Attorney General for Alaska?
A. I do not support having an elected Attorney General. An elected AG means that person will need to seek donations from individual Alaskans, PACs and trial lawyers. Alaska has too many divisive issues to allow them to enter an election debate for the AG. The AG must pursue the duties of that office in a dispassionate manner, free from political influence.
Finally, I fear an elected AG in Alaska will lead to the abuse of office and power in an attempt to pursue future office. We want an AG who takes aggressive tones where appropriate for wrong doers; we do not need an AG who attempts to put notches in his belt in hopes of using that in campaign literature down the road.
Q. Would your proposed AG change require an amendment to the State Constitution?
A. That could be one option. It would give all Alaskans a chance to vote on the Constitutional change so that future Governors and future AG's realize the AG answers to the people, not the Governor.
At the same time, the duties and powers of the AG are currently found in statute at AS 44.23.020. We may decide to pursue a change in statute by revising the structure of the office rather than pursuing a Constitutional amendment. The bottom line is the AG must be free to act independently, not subject to the whims or dictates of the Governor.
Q. What is a "Legal Counsel"?
A. Forty-six states have "Legal Counsel". The Legal Counsels in these states advise their respective Governors on the functions, powers and duties of the Governor's office. The legal counsel's role is to serve as the Governor's attorney and one of his or her key advisors. Some of the most important duties of legal counsels include: providing legal and policy advice to the Governor; interpreting state and federal laws, rules and regulations; monitoring and responding to ethics problems and holding ethics trainings; and reviewing requests for public records. (1)
Only Alaska and Hawaii require their Attorneys General to serve both the Governor and the people of their state. The Governors of South Dakota and Wyoming have no legal counsel/advisors within their administrations. (2)
Q. Why are you proposing creating a Legal Counsel and how much will it cost?
A. I am proposing creating a position of Legal Counsel in order to avoid the conflicts of interest that occur when the Attorney General tries to comply with his/her ethical obligations to both the Governor and the people of the State of Alaska. As we have seen all too often in recent years, often times these obligations conflict with each other and, usually, Alaskans have come out on the short end of the conflict.
States with small Governor's offices, such as Alaska, usually operate a single Legal Counsel position with no assistants. Assuming we paid the Legal Counsel the same salary as the Attorney General, the cost to the state would be $135,000 plus benefits. When compared with the cost to Alaskans resulting from the recent "Trooper-gate" episode, for example, the cost of ensuring the highest levels of executive integrity pales in comparison. (3) Creating this position is one very important step on the path to restoring integrity to the Governor's office and insuring that future Governors comply with the constitution.
Q. What is the Alaska Personnel Board and what changes are you proposing for it?
A. The function of the Personnel Board as defined by Alaska Statute is, in part, to hear complaints under the Alaska Executive Branch Ethics Act (AS 39.25.060). I am proposing the following changes to the board:
First, change the process for removing a Personnel Board member. Current Alaska law states that, once appointed, a Governor may only remove a member from the Board "for cause." That power should be taken away from the Governor and instead placed either with an independent Attorney General or via a legislative impeachment process. The Governor should not have the ability to act as employer, judge and jury over the people who are supposed to be enforcing the Executive Branch Ethics Act. That is the ultimate fox watching the hen house -- the Governor can appoint members and then exert undue influence over them to protect his key staff from facing Personnel Board action, while also having the power to remove them from service.
Second, I will seek changes to the terms members may serve on the board. Currently members are appointed by the Governor to serve 6-year terms. That leaves Personnel Board members in the position of deciding how to act if they want to be reappointed by the Governor. As we have seen, there have been times in the last few years when the Personnel Board has not pursued what appeared to be clear cases of violations of the Ethics Act. While they offer their own justifications, these conflicts impact on our faith in the system. It is time we remove the incentives for perpetual service and impose term limits on the Board.
By removing the ability for a board member to be reappointed in the future we will impose single term limits on the members. This, in turn, means that members of this Board are more likely to act independently in their decision-making, free from the allure or influence of the Governor's office and the possibility of reappointment.
My commitment to upholding the highest ethical standards in government is clear from my record of public service. I have time and again stood up to corruption and the lack of transparency that serves to cripple our rights as Alaskans to a government accountable to us, not special interests or powerful politicians. This effort to revitalize ethics and integrity to the Executive Branch of our state government is the natural next step.
1 National Governors Association, Governor's Office Guide: Legal Counsel.
2 National Governors Association, State by State listing of Governors' Staff.
3 Six legislators filed suit to prevent their fellow legislators from pursuing the Trooper-gate investigation, for a total cost of $185,00. See "$185,000 Legal Bill to Fight Trooper-gate Investigation," Anchorage Daily News, Feb. 6, 2009. Former Governor Sarah Palin had to raise funds to cover the $500,000 legal fees associated with her involvement in Trooper-gate. See, "Palin's Legal Debts Pile Up," Anchorage Daily News, March 20, 2009. All of these expenses could have been avoided.