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July 16, 2018

Transparency? You can’t HANDLE transparency.

Let’s talk about why some Republican Senators actually said right out loud that the public should be kept in the dark about ethical issues surrounding legislators who may be voting despite a declared conflict of interest.

Let’s just say for a minute that you work for a candy manufacturer. Pick your favorite. Mine is Butterfinger, so we’ll use that here. So, there’s a big Butterfinger factory somewhere in Alaska, and you work there. And let’s also say you’re a member of the Alaska legislature – a senator.

Butterfinger is happy to let you work 7 or 8 months of the year and take months off to go be in the legislature for the rest of the time. Then when the legislative session adjourns, you go back and resume your candy job. Sweet deal, right?

And let’s say that there’s a big vote coming up on taxing candy manufacturers. One side wants candy manufacturers to chip in more, but the Butterfinger bigwigs obviously don’t want that to happen. They have a feduciary obligation to maximize candy profit for shareholders. So you stand up on the floor of the Senate before the vote and say, “I cannot vote! I have a conflict of interest because I work for Butterfinger, and I cannot ethically cast an unbiased vote on candy tax!”

So far, I hope you’re with me and this all makes sense. Because here’s where it gets really weird.

At this point, all it takes is ONE other Senator to “object” to your conflict of interest (yes, THEY can object to YOUR own stated conflict of interest) and you, by the code under which the Senate operates, will be compelled to vote anyway. You can be forced to vote against your will. (See the last sentence in Rule 34(b) of the Alaska State Legislature Uniform Rules below.)

Alaska, by the way, is the only state in the union that requires unanimous consent of all senators to agree to allow someone to abstain from voting because of a conflict of interest. One single vote from one person can derail the whole thing and force that person to vote unethically.

Furthermore, the record will never show who objected to the stated conflict of interest. It’s just a mystery for the ages unless that quick flick of the wrist and the person muttering, “object!” happens to be captured on camera and preserved in the archives. Otherwise…  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

This is all terrible enough, but imagine for a second if the person who objected to your conflict is also a manager at Butterfinger! Because that’s just fine by current code, and nobody will likely ever know who it was anyway. And it all works out because if they then declare a conflict when it’s their turn to vote, you are also free to say “object!” and then they will have to vote on the candy tax too. Not that you would do that, because you have ethics. BUT… if it were two other people, it doesn’t take a candy scientist to figure out how this is likely going to go. I bet you a bag of fun-size Butterfingers that they both vote no on the candy manufacturing tax.

So, Senator Berta Gardner (D-Anchorage) for the second time put forward a resolution which in essence says that we must put change this procedure and put three things on the record which currently are not:

  1. Who declared the conflict of interest,
  2. Why they declared a conflict of interest, and
  3. Who objected to the conflict of interest and forced the legislator to vote

Sounds pretty basic, right? I mean who in their ethically-right mind could possibly openly object to transparency, and accountability to the people? RIGHT?

Well, let’s take a little peek at the Senate State Affairs Committee meeting that happened last week, and we’ll see. Don’t worry, I won’t bore you to death with committee stuff. There are 3 Republicans who do a brilliant job of explaining to you why accountability, transparency, and ethics are really super bad ideas, and why they would rather not have any of this on the record where people could, you know, SEE it.

In that spirit, here are three non-transparent black boxes. But click on them and you’ll get to see what these legislators really think in 17 seconds or less.

First on deck, Senator Cathy Giessel (R-Anchorage).

Concealment? What’s the problem? 😀 She doesn’t know! 😀 I mean… wut? 😀

Next up is Senator John Coghill (R-North Pole)

We certainly can’t make politics POLITICAL, can we. No, if people saw who was objecting they might, you know, use that information for something. They would know. And then legislators would be held accountable, and well… THAT would be political. Coghill says he’s still “mulling it over.”

And finally, Sen. Kevin Meyer (R-Anchorage) who also happens to be an employee of Conoco-Phillips.

That’s right… if someone in some industry like candy manufacturing (cough OIL INDUSTRY cough) were to vote on a candy tax (cough OIL TAX cough) that would be just fine because it’s not benefitting that candy mogul any more than it’s benefitting any other candy mogul. So… it’s all good, right? I mean, it’s not like Butterfinger would fire you or make your life miserable if you voted for the candy tax. Probably. Maybe. Would they?

Just as a totally coincidental point of interest, two long-time oil industry executives (Kevin Meyer and Peter Micchiche (R-Soldotna) both voted for the nightmarish debacle of an oil tax a few years ago (SB21) that now has the soon-to-be-broke State of Alaska contemplating taking a loan out so we can pay some of the richest multi-national corporations in the world, the money WE NOW OWE THEM. But, you’re asking, did those two votes from oil company executives make the difference as to whether that oil tax bill passed? Why, yes. Yes they did.

From the Anchorage Daily News in 2016:

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.

… 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.

Nothing to see here! It’s not unethical, it just looks unethical to you. Feel better now?

Any guesses as to whether this bill ever comes to a vote?

 

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