Representative Jason Grenn Advances Innovative Ethics Bill

Last month, Rep. Jason Grenn, an independent from the Alaska House of Representatives, successfully spearheaded an amendment to House Bill 44 (vote 39-1) which will increase the ethics guidelines for legislators in the state. The bill’s journey began on January 13, 2017 when Rep. Grenn released the pre-filed bill HB 44 (pre-filed means these bills are referred to committees before all other bills), calling for new accountability measures for individuals in the legislature.

Over a year later on May 11, 2018, HB 44 passed, leading to legislative adjustments. One of the largest adjustments being that after day 121 in the legislative session, if legislators have not approved the budget, they cannot receive the per diem (compensation for additional days working in the legislature) previously allowed. Beyond the per diem limitation, the new measures restrict lobbyists’ maximum payments for legislators’ meals and forbids lobbyists from purchasing alcohol for representatives. It also requires declarations of conflicts of interest (although it is diluted from the original guidelines Grenn advocated for), limits foreign travel policies, and barrs foreign corporation expenditure on behalf of candidates in state elections.

While the amendment inevitably faced skeptics and road blocks, the group ‘Alaskans for Integrity’ simultaneously started to collect over 45,000 signatures from around the state in order to introduce similar measures on the next ballot. With grassroots support from Represent Alaska, the local organization of Represent.US, the group was able to demonstrate enough public support to draw the attention of state lawmakers.

Rep. Grenn (I), Rep. Bonnie Jack (R) and Rep. Jonathan Kreiss Tomkins (D), the co-sponsors of HB 44, also worked in conjunction with this initiative, thus highlighting the importance of the needed change. The parallel requests for more transparency and responsibility in the state government demonstrated commitment from legislators and citizens alike to change the current state of officials’ responsibility in addition to forming a new and improved relationship between officials and the public.

The bill is currently in transition to the independent Governor of Alaska, Gov. Bill Walker, for signature; if signed, the Alaska Department of Law will determine if the ballot measure will be taken off in the election due to the similarities with the passed bill. The bill is still in transition, but almost immediately after it was passed in the legislature, Gov. Walker applauded the changes that will be made as he has consistently been a proponent of a legislative proposal that focuses on strengthening ethics in the capitol. Governor Walker said:

I thank the Legislature for responding in a meaningful way to the outcry for additional restrictions on per diem and improvements to ethics rules. These changes would not have been made without the leadership of Representative Jason Grenn and Representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, who championed the principles of good governance in HB 44 and in a related ballot measure.

While the citizen driven ballot initiative is slightly different from the bill, the bill’s success in the legislature shows promise for future cooperation between representatives as well as highlighting the advantages gained when officials work together for the benefit of citizens (Juneau Empire). As an independent, Rep. Grenn could sideline partisan politics and respond to complaints he heard while running in the 2016 campaign general election regarding the lack of trust citizens had in government officials. Rep. Grenn stated in an interview that the bill showcases the responsibility officials have to citizens as the representatives should “care about what people outside the building think.” He noted that the bill was a direct response to concerns he heard from constituents on the campaign trail:

When I ran for office for the first time (2016), I was hearing from neighbors on things like conflict of interest, things like excessive the per diem. As a new person, you can offer some insights that maybe this building sometimes forgets. When citizens of Alaska, when they are loud about something, they should pay attention.

This bill is important for several reasons. Primarily, it institutes tangible limits and restrictions in an attempt to increase government efficiency and transparency. With the changes, this also has the potential to increase trust in legislators and decisions being made in the legislature. The process is also worth noting as the bill’s legislative supporters reflected and worked with citizens as opposed to simply being reactive or slowly responding to a myriad of complaints. This is an example of the work, action, and results that can be possible when party divisions are sidelined for a united goal.

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Leanna is a second year student in the MA Conflict Resolution program at Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver. She is currently a research fellow for the Unite America Institute.