Legislature(2003 - 2004)
02/24/2004 03:37 PM STA
* first hearing in first committee of referral
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
SB 227-MUNI INITIATIVE AND REFERENDUM ELECTIONS CHAIR GARY STEVENS announced SB 227 to be up for consideration and that he was the sponsor. He paraphrased the following sponsor statement: Senator Bill 227 is "An Act relating to municipal initiative and referendum elections." The bill was introduced to help local governments who are facing cost increases and having to avoid costly special initiative elections and referendums that voters bring forward. In many cases the issues are not so pressing that they cannot wait for the regular municipal election. Special elections are costly and often have a lower voter turnout than regular elections. Under current law, municipalities are forced to hold initiative elections and referendums within 75 days and because elections are normally held in October, it is often quite costly and burdensome to the municipalities. Recently, the Fairbanks North Star Borough had over 46 petitions filed in four months. There was only one special election, but it cost $35,000 plus volunteer help and the workload on municipal employees. Still there was the potential to have many more special elections at enormous cost to the municipality. This bill would result in cost savings to communities that choose to wait until the next general election to consider the issue then saving both time and money for the municipalities. This legislation would give the governing body the option of calling a special election if the council or assembly wanted to have the initiative or referendum considered in a more timely basis. Examples might be for bonding issues, special initiatives that are not particularly time-sensitive. In those cases, any local governing assembly can vote to hold a special election so there is that option - special election or regular election. The bill is supported by the Municipal League, the Fairbanks North Star Borough, the Kenai Peninsula Borough, and the Alaska Association of Municipal Clerks. It streamlines the special initiative and referendum process by giving local governments an option to cut costs and hold a special election during their annual election cycle. SENATOR GRETCHEN GUESS observed there would be a 13-month wait if the next regular election fell less than 60 days after a petition was certified. She said she would like further explanation of the local control option. CHAIR GARY STEVENS initially pointed out that Anchorage isn't affected because it is a first class city. Then he explained that municipalities could continue with a special election or referendum if they chose to do so or they could elect to postpone until the regular October election. This simply gives another option so municipalities aren't forced to hold special elections on every issue that comes before them. SENATOR BERT STEDMAN remarked that the issue of cost savings can be substantial and this gives cities more fiscal control. CHAIR GARY STEVENS told Senator Guess he would come back to her in awhile if she had more questions. SENATOR JOHN COWDERY noticed that there was a change from 45 to 60 days and he wondered what had to be prepared within 60 days of the election. CHAIR GARY STEVENS told him everything that's associated with a regular election has to be done including ballot preparation and staff arrangements. JOHN COWDERY asked if all polling stations would stay the same. CHAIR GARY STEVENS said they would. SENATOR GUESS asked what would happen if a petition was certified 30 days before the regular election. CHAIR GARY STEVENS read Section 1, but wasn't clear about her question. SENATOR LYMAN HOFFMAN said the language creates a disqualifying window for petitions that are certified less than 60 days prior to a regular election. SENATOR COWDERY wasn't certain that he read Section 1 correctly. CHAIR GARY STEVENS asked his staff whether he had clarification. DOUG LETCH, staff to Senator Gary Stevens, said "it comes down to local option that does exist that says that if you have a more pressing matter that comes before the governing body they do have that option of putting on a special election." He thought the Kenai clerks might be able to elaborate. CHAIR GARY STEVENS said a Ketchikan Gateway Borough representative was online and might be able to answer the question. SCOTT BENDT-ERICKSEN, attorney with the Ketchikan Gateway Borough, thanked the Chair for introducing the legislation and said municipal attorneys and clerks support the bill and the concept. He said he did have some specific suggestions and he though he could answer some of the questions that were raised. The reason for the change from 45 to 60 days is because elections require pre-clearance from the Justice Department and it would be difficult to complete the clearance in less than 60 days. With regard to Senator Guess's question, he said that if a petition is certified less than 60 days prior to a regular election, it could be as long as 14 months before that initiative measure appears on the ballot. MR. BENDT-ERICKSEN suggested changing the word "regular" on page 1, line 5 to "regular or special" or simply remove the word "regular" to make it clear that there was an option. He also suggested that if there isn't a regular election within 75 days of a petition being certified, there should be some provision for the measure to be suspended until there is a vote on the referendum petition. The balance of Mr. Bendt-Ericksen's testimony was indiscernible. CHAIR GARY STEVENS asked him to comment to the issue of voter turnout in regular elections versus special elections. MR. BENDT-ERICKSEN stated that special elections frequently have half or less than half the turnout of regular elections. SENATOR COWDERY noted that most of the language on line 6 was not new but it was confusing nonetheless. He then asked what the outer limit might be. MR. BENDT-ERICKSEN replied the greatest length of time would be about 14 months. If a petition weren't certified until 59 days before the next regular election, it wouldn't go on that regular election. It would go on the regular election one year later. A special election could be called if the matter was pressing. CHAIR GARY STEVENS restated the timeframe, which would be between 60 days and 14 months and then made the point that a local governing body could make the decision to have a special election. SENATOR GUESS asked which statute gives municipalities the local option because it isn't contained in the bill. MR. LETCH supplied, "Title 29, line [chapter] 60." CHAIR GARY STEVENS asked Mr. Bendt-Ericksen to explain the issue of referendums. MR. BENDT-ERICKSEN explained that a referendum typically comes about because someone wants to repeal or undo an action of a governing body. He continued, " Under the current provisions, if the referendum petition is submitted before the effective date then the issue can be suspended until the vote. If the measure has already gone into effect, then it's not suspended until there is a vote on the issue." CHAIR GARY STEVENS announced he would hold the bill to address the issues that were raised.