Minor revolt among Alaska senators fails to advance PFD amendment

A minor revolt in the Alaska Senate failed on Saturday to advance constitutional protections for the Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend.

Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, abruptly adjourned a weekend meeting of that committee when it appeared the committee could advance a constitutional amendment proposed by Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage.

“I wasn’t too sure how my committee was going,” Coghill said after the meeting.

The North Pole senator has consistently opposed constitutional protections for the Permanent Fund Dividend.

“I don’t know that I’m willing to put the dividend as a constitutional right alongside the freedom of speech and the second amendment,” he said during Saturday’s hearing.

Coghill’s abrupt adjournment of Saturday’s meeting precluded lawmakers from considering Senate Bill 127, a measure from Sen. Mia Costello, R-Anchorage, to repeal much of the criminal justice reform bill known as Senate Bill 91. Also on the agenda (and not heard) was House Bill 214, a measure renaming a portion of the Alaska Safe Children’s Act after Bree Moore, a 20-year-old Anchorage woman who was murdered by her boyfriend in 2014.

Coghill opposes all three measures and refused to schedule a hearing to consider them until Wielechowski, Costello and Sen. Mike Shower, R-Wasilla, employed a little-used procedural action to force Coghill to hold a meeting on the bills.

“You guys have twisted my arm,” Coghill said in Saturday’s hearing.

Committee chairmen are normally the final word on scheduling bills for consideration, and if they are not considered in committee, they cannot advance.

Alaska Legislature Uniform Rule 48 provides one exception to that power. It states that if a majority of a committee’s members turn in a signed petition to the presiding officer (in this case, Senate President Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks), the chairman must consider any measures on that petition.

If the chairman doesn’t consider them within three days, the bills automatically advance to the next committee.

Rule 48 hasn’t been employed in the Senate in the past 25 years.

Costello, Wielechowski and Shower submitted their petition last week, and Coghill obliged by scheduling Saturday’s hearing.

What no one expected — not even Wielechowski — was that the committee’s sole Democrat would use the opportunity to request a vote that would have sent the proposed constitutional amendment to the next committee on its agenda.

Afterward, Wielechowski said he took the action after Coghill said he would not hold public testimony on the proposal.

“When I saw that there really wasn’t any intent to do that, I just called for the vote,” Wielechowski said.

Rather than take a vote he might lose (Wielechowski and Shower said they were in favor of moving it out; Costello was noncommittal), Coghill adjourned the meeting. The fifth member of the committee, Kelly, appeared to side with Coghill and left with the chairman as soon as the gavel fell.

That meant no hearing for HB 214 or for Costello’s effort to repeal SB 91, a bill that was pioneered by Coghill but which many Alaskans blame for a surge in crime.

“I think it’s a vital conversation we need to have with the Legislature and the public,” Costello said. “I will continue to fight for a conversation.”

Nothing prevents the three senators from filing another Rule 48 petition and repeating the process, but Coghill appeared to be attempting to head that off by holding a closed-door meeting with Costello in an effort to give her a way to discuss SB 127, but in a way that does not cause him to lose control of the bill.

Wielechowski, meanwhile, was in discussions with Doug Gardner, the Legislature’s lead attorney, and attempting to determine whether Saturday’s abbreviated hearing met the requirements of Rule 48. If not, the three bills could pass out of Coghill’s committee without his approval.

Shower, who has been in office for only six weeks, said he supports consideration of the three bills on Saturday’s agenda and stands ready to do what he can to make sure they are heard.

“I’m not afraid to challenge the status quo,” he said.

“I’m not here to be liked in this building. I’m here to do what is right, and I’m here to represent the people, and that’s my bottom line.”

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

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