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Alaska House votes to boost unemployment benefits

The Alaska House of Representatives has voted along caucus lines to boost unemployment benefits statewide.

In a floor session Wednesday morning, the House voted 22-16 to approve House Bill 142 from House Majority Leader Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage. The bill advances to the Senate for consideration.

“I think it’s time for Alaska to pass an increase to our insurance benefit,” Tuck said.

If approved by the Senate and signed by Gov. Bill Walker, HB 142 would increase the state’s maximum unemployment payment from $370 per week to $510 per week. Only the maximum will change; under state law, the amount of an Alaskan’s unemployment benefit is determined by how much they earned while employed. Under the new bill, anyone earning more than $59,500 per year is at the maximum.

That new maximum is half of the state’s average weekly wage, and a clause in the bill calls for the maximum to be revised if the state’s average weekly wage increases. Alaska’s current maximum benefit is the 39th highest in the country. The $510 amount would be the 13th highest in the United States.

Alaska has the highest unemployment rate in the nation, Tuck explained before the vote, and he envisions the bill as a way to help Alaskans who, “through no fault of their own,” have lost their jobs. In written testimony, said a single parent with two children is below the federal poverty line, even if they earn the existing maximum.

According to the latest available figures from the Alaska Department of Labor, 8.1 percent of Alaskans were out of work in January. Alaska is in its longest economic recession since the 1980s.

Alaska’s unemployment benefits are paid with a tax on employers and employees, Tuck said, which means there is no cost to state government.

That doesn’t mean there’s no cost, pointed out Rep. Dan Saddler, R-Eagle River.

Before the vote, he said the increasing benefits will entail an increase in the tax, thus burdening businesses and individuals during the ongoing recession. Seventy-three percent of unemployment benefits are paid by employers; 27 percent of those benefits are paid by employees.

“There would be a significant cost to private industry and a lesser cost to individuals,” Saddler said.

According to the Alaska Department of Labor, those costs wouldn’t kick in until 2021; there would be no cost increase for businesses in 2019 or 2020. By 2023, the department expects an average employer to pay $124 more per employee per year.

The vote, 22-16, was along caucus lines. All 22 members of the coalition House Majority (two independents, three Republicans and 17 Democrats) were present for the first time this year and voted for the bill. Sixteen members of the 18-member Republican House Minority were present and voted against it.

Senate approves police background check bill

The Alaska Senate on Wednesday morning voted 20-0 to approve a measure that would allow the state to perform nationwide background checks on rural public safety officers and people considering training in the state’s police academies. Senate Bill 148 advances to the House for consideration.

Under federal law, state programs that require nationwide background checks must be authorized by legislation, rather than regulation. SB 148 was introduced by Gov. Bill Walker, who has supported its passage as part of his public safety action plan.

Other House action

In a 38-0 vote, the House of Representatives has approved a bill that allows the Marijuana Control Board to continue operating through 2024. House Bill 273 was sponsored by Rep. Sam Kito III, D-Juneau, and advances to the Senate for consideration. The bill’s passage follows a state audit that found only minor problems with the board’s operations in its first three years.

The House also voted 30-8 to dissolve the Legislature’s Administrative Regulation Review Committee. House Bill 168, sponsored by Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, advances to the Senate.

According to an analysis of the committee’s actions, it has never suspended a regulation approved by a state agency, and a 1980 Alaska Supreme Court case questioned whether it is in the Legislature’s power to overturn a regulation.

• Contact reporter James Brooks at jbrooks@juneauempire.com or 523-2258.

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