Senate votes to relax penalty for texting while driving

The Alaska Senate voted unanimously, 20-0 on Wednesday, to relax the penalty for texting while driving. Senate Bill 123, brought by Sen. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage and the Senate President, turns texting from a misdemeanor to a $500 fine.

The Alaska Legislature attempted to ban texting while driving in 2008, but a state court threw out that law — the fifth state ban in the nation — as improperly written. In 2012, the Legislature passed a revised law that still stands. That law said anyone caught texting on their cellphone while driving could be liable for a Class A misdemeanor punishable by a $10,000 fine and up to one year in jail.

Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, said Wednesday that the 2012 bill was too difficult to enforce.

“The cost of prosecuting individuals who have been charged with the crime … is too costly for people to go forward with it,” she said.

Because texting is a misdemeanor crime and not a non-criminal citation akin to a speeding ticket, it requires a court case and formal prosecution. Since it’s only a misdemeanor, however, it’s a low priority for police departments and prosecutors to pursue.

“The process was just too expensive, and of course in these lean budget times, we can’t imagine it would get any less expensive,” McGuire said.

The revised texting penalty, $500, is modeled after an ordinance implemented by the Municipality of Anchorage and can be paid without a court appearance.

SB 123 does not change the penalties for texting that leads to a car accident injury or death. That remains a felony, with severity escalating as the injury becomes more severe.

The bill will go to the House for consideration.

In another unanimous vote Wednesday, the Senate approved Senate Bill 180, which would allow parents to voluntarily surrender a yearlong power of attorney over their children.

Sen. Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage and the prime sponsor of the bill, said the proposal is intended to preserve families and keep children out of the state’s welfare system.

“SB 180 establishes a safe and healthy alternative to government intervention and placement of a child in foster care,” Giessel said.

If another family member becomes a child’s guardian, SB 180 allows a parent to transfer power of attorney for the child to the family member. The power can be revoked by either parent at any time, and it expires after one year.

It’s intended to allow parents who know they are suffering from addiction, imprisonment, military deployment or other problems an alternative to the Office of Children’s Services.

Parents cannot choose the SB 180 approach if they are already in the OCS system. Furthermore, the guardian receiving power of attorney privileges must report any abuse or signs of abuse under penalty of law.

The bill now goes to the House.

The Senate also voted unanimously of a resolution naming April 2016 Sexual Assault Awareness Month. The resolution next goes to the House.

The House, also meeting for a floor session on Wednesday morning, approved House Bill 125 in a 32-3 vote. That bill, brought forward by Rep. Charisse Millett, R-Anchorage and the House Majority Leader, restricts the sale of cough medicine containing the drug dextromethorphan.

Millett said dextromethorphan has been abused by those seeking a legal high. HB 125 requires anyone under age 18 to get a prescription before buying cough medicine with dextromethorphan.

Rep. Cathy Muñoz, R-Juneau, voted for the bill. Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, voted against. Rep. Sam Kito III, D-Juneau, is absent from the House this week, attending a meeting in Washington, D.C.

The bill now goes to the Senate.

The next floor sessions of the House and Senate are Friday.

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