All sides gathered — by teleconference — in an Anchorage courthouse Tuesday to argue about whether people collecting signatures on ballot petitions can get paid by the month, in addition to the $1 per signature that is allowed by law. It’s a novel interpretation of the law, but it was done recently to get oil tax hikes back on the ballot.
Robin Brena, who is behind Ballot Measure 1, argued that he even if what he did was illegal when he paid salaries to signature mercenaries, there was nothing the court should or can do about it.
The State’s attorney, Margaret Paton-Walsh, offered the “not my job” argument, saying it was not the lieutenant governor’s job to determine if signatures were gathered legally.
And Matt Singer, the lawyer for Resource Development Council, gave the “Wild Wild West” argument, asking the judge to consider that if laws don’t matter, why do we even have them?
Alaska statute prevents petitioners like tax proponent Brena from paying more than $1 per signature on a petition to get a ballot question in front of the voters.
No one is really disputing that Brena skirted the law by paying the salaries for the signature gatherers. But did he break it? Or did he just bend it?
Brena, a high-powered attorney who has offered oil tax packages like this in the past, knew the law and found a workaround, because without paying the premiums to signature gatherers, he simply couldn’t get enough signatures fast enough at just $1 per.
Brena contracted with the Outside firm Advanced Micro Targeting to pay the signature gatherers’ air fare to Alaska, hotels, transportation, meals, and a monthly salary, in addition to $1 per signature they got on the Brena oil tax petition. All that, to get an extremely complicated tax restructuring measure on the ballot, one that some say would drive the final nail into the coffin of the Alaska economy.
Brena, a millionaire who has vast real estate holdings in Anchorage, knew the penalty, if he was caught, would be quite manageable and the courts would probably just slap his hand.
If Brena violated the law by paying outsiders a salary to collect signatures, it would just be consider a misdemeanor crime, Brena argued in court, and the illegally collected signatures would still be valid.
He further argued that even if he what he was doing it wrong, no one who was signing the petition knew it was an illegal petition operation, and to throw out their signatures would disenfranchise them.
But Brena then said he did not actually violate the law, because the law does not specifically say groups cannot pay people salaries to collect signatures. It only says, Brena argued, that the per-signature fee cannot be more than $1.
That isn’t exactly right. In 2009, the Legislature took up the matter of paying signature gatherers via salary and decided it would remain illegal. It’s a dollar a signature for petitions, not a penny more.
Brena argued that the courts have never interfered with the public’s right to petition to change laws, and has always liberally interpreted questions in favor of the petitioners like him. That part is true; the courts have allowed things like the Recall Dunleavy petition to proceed, even though it violates all kinds of election laws.
If Brena wins, Alaska will enter a new era, with Outside groups coming into the state to pay handsome salaries to day laborers in order to get various measures onto Alaska’s ballot, be it climate change mitigation or constitutional changes. What’s being done now with Outside money to influence elections with “Alaskans for Better Elections” will only expand, once groups learn of this novel workaround. (In fact, Alaskans for Better Elections used the same company and the same workaround).
The Resource Development Council argued that since Brena illegally paid more than $1 a signature, the affidavits signed by the petition circulators when they turned in their booklets were falsified. These were not simply legally collected signatures, RDC said.
Matthew Singer, the attorney for RDC, also said the lieutenant governor should have questioned the legality of the signature-gathering effort, since it is obvious that more than $1 per signature was expended by Brena.
Singer offered a remedy to the situation, in which all agree that some 25,000 signatures were obtained outside the legal limit of $1 per.
The only recourse, he said, was to throw the illegal signatures and start over.
When asked by Judge Thomas Matthews what he thought about disenfranchising the signers of the petition, Singer said that that was something that Brena should have thought about when he began his illegal signature gathering campaign. And since Brena knows who signed the petition, he can easily go to each one and ask them to re-sign.
Rick Whitbeck, of the pro-jobs group known as Power the Future, attended the hearing by teleconference and commented afterward:
“Brena’s ridiculous legal argument today continues his assault on hundreds of energy workers and their families,” Whitbeck said. “He may not want to blatantly admit it under oath, but make no mistake, he knows his group gathered signatures illegally, and his legal gymnastics are designed to keep the initiative from being thrown out completely. Should he succeed, and if this initiative passes in November, the fallout – in terms of decreased investment and the risk to existing and future jobs – will be disastrous to Alaska.”
If the court buys Brena’s argument, there will be no limits on what a ballot measure sponsor can do to gather signatures. But Tuesday’s hearing in Superior Court was merely a speed bump on the way to the Alaska Supreme Court, where this matter will ultimately be adjudicated.