Sen. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, gathers with other senators and families as they prepare for the opening of the Alaska’s 31st Legislative Session on Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Sen. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, gathers with other senators and families as they prepare for the opening of the Alaska’s 31st Legislative Session on Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Suicide prevention bill gains bipartisan support in Senate

Senate Bill 10 seeks to extend term of Statewide Suicide Prevention Council

The Alaska Legislature’s start to the new legislative session has been a rocky one, but one bill is already gaining bipartisan support in the Senate.

Senate Bill 10 aims to extend the term of a 17-year-old statewide organization dedicated to preventing suicides, through the year 2027. If the bill does not pass, the Statewide Suicide Prevention Council would expire on June 30.

Sen. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, introduced the bill ahead of session, and on Friday, 14 of the 20 state senators backed it as a co-sponsor.

“Suicide and suicide prevention is not a partisan issue,” Kawasaki said in a phone interview from Fairbanks on Friday. “So I was pleased to have so much support. I think it’s something we can pass fairly easy.”

[Alaska suicide rate increases 13 percent during 2012-17 period]

Sen. Mia Costello, R-Anchorage, made a short emotional request, with tears welling in her eyes, to become a co-sponsor of the bill, in honor of “a dear friend” during a Senate Floor Session.

It did not take long for the other senators to follow suit. In addition to Costello, Republicans who became co-sponsors now include: Sens. Natasha Von Imhof, Cathy Giessel, John Coghill, Shelley Hughes, Gary Stevens, David Wilson and Chris Birch. In addition to Kawasaki, Democrat cosponsors include: Sens. Donny Olson, Bill Wielechowski, Jesse Kiehl, Lyman Hoffman, Elvi Gray-Jackson and Tom Begich.

Kawasaki said suicide is something that has touched almost every Alaskan including many legislators and himself.

“It was a bit personal,” Kawasaki said about drafting the legislation. He said he was shocked himself last fall when a “bright, vivacious, talented” friend completed suicide.

Alaska has one of the highest suicide rates in the nation, and a new study released in December indicated there was a 13 percent increase in suicides between 2012 and 2017 compared to a similar period from 2007 to 2011. The Associated Press reported that suicide was the leading cause of death for people between the ages of 10 and 64, according to the analysis by state health officials. The rates were highest in northern and southwestern communities. The largest increase, however, was along the state’s Railbelt.

The Statewide Suicide Prevention Council advises the governor and legislators on policy. It also works with communities, educators and faith groups to prevent suicide in Alaska.

The Legislative Audit Committee’s annual report, which was signed and released last week, recommended the council’s term be extended. The report’s purpose is to give an opinion on basic financial statements and whether the organization is worth the money. The audit found the council “fulfilled its statutory duties.”

“The audit found the council operated in the public’s interest,” the report reads, “by actively broadening the public’s awareness of suicide prevention, and coordinating the efforts of other suicide prevention entities including State agencies, regional groups, coalitions, and local communities.”

Although this bill has gained support, it has not yet had a hearing, neither has it been referred to a committee.

Moving forward, Kawasaki hopes to continue working with the Statewide Council on Suicide.

“I hope we can meet with the council members to implement tangible ways that we can address suicide prevention,” Kawasaki said.

Stevens on the House

Also during the Senate Floor Session, Sen. Gary Stevens, a Republican from Kodiak, asked permission “to speak fondly of the other body,” before lamenting the House of Representatives’ lack of leadership.

Although the House selected a temporary speaker in Rep. Neal Foster, D-Nome, the House remains unorganized and consequently ineffective. Without organization and a permanent speaker, the House cannot conduct regular business such as assigning members to committees or moving bills to committees to edge them closer to passage.

“As we walk through these halls of this historic and sacred building, all we hear is the sound of silence,” Stevens said as he addressed Senate President Cathy Giessel. “Mr. Speaker, my old friend, will we ever have a real speaker again? Apologies to Paul Simon and to you, madame president, I promise not to sing.”

Stevens also touched briefly on the friendly rivalry between the Senate and House, and the different cultures within each.

“It really takes the other body to make the Senate look good. It’s a truly lonely here, I believe, by ourselves and the other body is truly missed,” Stevens said.

The House session on Friday was canceled. The next floor session has not been scheduled.

The Senate will gavel in at 1 p.m. Monday.

New Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s State of the State Address is tentatively scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday. His first State of the State remains tentative because House leadership is required to invite the Senate to hear the address.

Editor’s Note: Suicide is a serious topic. If you’re in trouble and need help, please talk to someone. If you don’t think you can talk to someone in person, call the Alaska CARELINE at 1-877-266-HELP, or visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, the Alaska Community Mental Health Centers, or juneausuicideprevention.org.


Contact reporter Kevin Baird at kbaird@juneauempire.com or call 523-2258.


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