Lawmakers didn’t approve any of the biggest items considered necessary for filling the state’s $4.1 billion budget deficit, but there was no shortage of action on the 90th day of the regular session.
Many of the bills passed by the House and Senate might not have garnered significant attention, but they will have a major impact on Alaskans’ lives if signed into law by Gov. Bill Walker.
Texting penalties relaxed
The penalty for texting while driving will be relaxed if Walker signs Senate Bill 123 into law. Drafted by Senate President Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, the bill was approved by the Alaska House in a 34-3 vote Sunday. The bill now goes to the governor. The Senate previously voted 20-0 to pass the bill.
“Currently, right now, the way it is working is not working,” said House Majority Leader Charisse Millett, R-Anchorage, of Alaska’s existing texting-while-driving law.
Under existing law, texting while driving a Class A misdemeanor, but Meyer and others testified in committee that few police and few prosecutors are willing to charge and prosecute offenders because of the time necessary to do so.
SB 123 turns texting while driving into a citation punishable by a $500 fine. Because Alaska State Troopers and city police will be able to simply write a ticket for texting, the statute will be enforced more often, Millett said.
“I think this is a stronger deterrent,” she said.
While the bill keeps intact the stiff penalties for injuries or deaths caused by car crashes linked to texting, Rep. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River, was among the three votes against the measure because she said it devalues the lives of people harmed by texting car crashes.
“Most texts are so unimportant that they can wait. I believe phones should be turned off while people are driving,” she said. “This is really causing the value of life to go down.”
Military justice reforms advance
A measure introduced to address the Alaska National Guard sexual assault scandal will soon receive gubernatorial attention. House Bill 126, introduced into the Legislature in February 2015, was approved 39-0 in the House and 20-0 in the Senate.
The measure includes the first significant reforms to Alaska’s code of military justice since 1955.
“Under the bill, we create more clarification with respect to crimes and their punishments,” said Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage.
In 2014, a scathing report by the federal National Guard Bureau found significant problems within the Alaska National Guard, including a disregard for reports of sexual harassment and sexual assault. The report also found that most Guard members were unaware there even was a state code of military justice. No one has been court-martialed under the code in more than half a century.
The bill calls for potential jail time and dishonorable discharge for crimes such as writing bad checks, desertion, and indecent exposure. It also includes several sections that apply to cases typically handled by civilian courts, including sexual assault and drunken driving.
Fun made mandatory
Senate Bill 200 requires schools across the state to offer 54 minutes of physical activity per day for children from kindergarten through eighth grade. Those 54 minutes can include both physical education classes and recess combined.
The bill was approved in an 18-0 vote of the Senate and a 35-4 vote of the House. Both votes came on Sunday and send the bill to Walker.
The measure was considered a means to promote juvenile health.
Cities lose revenue sharing cash
Alaska’s largest cities will lose funding under a plan to redistribute revenue sharing money provided by the state. Senate Bill 210 was approved by the House in a 32-7 vote and returns to the Senate for a vote to concur with changes made in the House.
“We just can’t keep passing our budget problems on,” said Rep. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, speaking against the bill.
Proposed in the Senate Finance Committee, SB 210 calls for the state to distribute $30 million per year to municipalities starting in summer 2017. That figure is less than a fully funded version of the state’s existing revenue sharing program but more than the amount currently scheduled to be distributed by a fund that has been drawn down by budget cuts.
That money will also be distributed in a revised formula that gives less money to cities more populous than Seward and more money to towns and villages smaller than that Kenai Peninsula settlement.
The idea, according to committee testimony, is to reduce the impact of budget cuts on smaller communities that don’t have the tax base to raise money in different ways.
Constitutional amendment heads to voters
When voters head to the polls this fall, they’ll also be asked if they want to amend the Alaska Constitution. Senate Joint Resolution 2, approved 37-1 in the House on the 90th Legislative day, would give the state the power to issue general obligation bonds to pay for student loans.
The state operates the Alaska Student Loan Corporation, and if it had access to money from general obligation bonds, it could offer loans to Alaska students at a lower rate of interest.
Even if voters approve the constitutional change, the bonds won’t come for another two years at least. A request would appear on the 2018 general election ballot, and voters would have to approve that borrowing.
Courts may protect pets
In divorce and domestic violence cases, courts may consider the well-being of pets, the Alaska Legislature has decided. In a 20-0 vote, the Alaska Senate approved House Bill 147, one of the last measures proposed by Rep. Max Gruenberg, D-Anchorage, before his death earlier this session.
The House previously approved the bill, which now goes to Gov. Walker.
The core of the bill consists of three provisions: In neglect cases, the owner of a pet is responsible for its upkeep if it is seized by the government; domestic violence victims may keep their pets with them if a restraining order is issued; and courts may consider the well-being of a pet in a divorce case.
children from OCS
Under Senate Bill 180, approved 37-0 in the House, parents can surrender a yearlong power of attorney to their children as an alternative to the state’s child welfare system.
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 goes to the governor’s desk.
Lawmakers approve sharing of voter information
The Alaska House has approved a bill calling for the state to share voter information with other states in an effort to deter voter fraud.
Representatives voted 36-3 Saturday afternoon to approve Senate Bill 9, one of many items of legislation considered by the Alaska House and Alaska Senate on the 89th day of the Legislative session.
The Electronic Registration Information Center is a project of several states and supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts. As of December 2015, 15 states participated in the information-sharing program, including Republican-leaning ones like Alabama and Democratic-leaning ones like Oregon.
“ERIC is a proven model that works,” said Rep. Dan Saddler, R-Eagle River and the bill’s prime sponsor in the House.
Rep. Sam Kito III, D-Juneau, spoke up in support. In a speech on the House floor, he explained how one Juneau woman, attending college Outside, was encouraged to register to vote at the college when she couldn’t remember if she had previously registered in Alaska.
“By registering again, she lost her eligibility for her Permanent Fund Dividend,” Kito said. “It’s important for us to be able to share information with other states.”
When the Senate approved SB 9 last year, it was written as a measure to repeal the ability of political parties to put partisan advertising in the state’s printed election pamphlet. The version of the bill passed by the House still includes that repeal, but the Senate never voted on the information-sharing components of the bill.
Thus, the bill will go back to the Senate for a concurrence vote. Only if the Senate agrees with the information-sharing aspects of the bill will it advance to the desk of Gov. Bill Walker.
In a bit of floor maneuvering, Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, amended an ethics bill to include a measure barring state contractors from participating in the state’s public employees retirement system.
Wilson’s amendment to Senate Bill 24 was approved 34-4 on Saturday. The text of the amendment is her House Bill 299, which was introduced in February but stalled in the House Labor and Commerce Committee.
Senate Bill 24, as designed by Sen. Berta Gardner, R-Anchorage, and approved in the Senate on April 1, exempts state contractors from irrelevant portions of the state’s ethics guidelines. It doesn’t make sense, Gardner said on the Senate floor, for the contractor in charge of printing the Legislative journals to be required to undergo training about answering constituent questions and political contributions.
SB 24 was approved 35-4 in the House and now returns to the Senate, where lawmakers will be asked whether to agree with Wilson’s amendment and other changes in the House.
To help the bill on its way, House lawmakers also voted 38-0 in favor of House Concurrent Resolution 34, which waives some rules of the House for SB 24.
In a 13-5 vote, the Senate on Saturday approved House Joint Resolution 14, which says the state supports a call for a U.S. Constitutional convention with the intent to pass an amendment that would allow states to “countermand” or veto a piece of federal legislation or a federal court decision.
The House approved the resolution 24-15 on April 10.
The resolution does not have to be approved by the governor, but it will not become effective unless two-thirds (34) of all U.S. states request one on the same topic. Alaska is the first state to request a constitutional convention on the countermand issue under Article V of the U.S. Constitution.
The Legislature in 2014 passed a resolution calling for an Article V convention to “impose fiscal restraints on the federal government, limit the power and jurisdiction of the federal government, and limit the terms of office of federal government officials.”
Tennessee, Alabama, Florida and Georgia have also requested Article V conventions on that topic, according to a list kept by the chief clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Saturday’s resolution was strongly opposed by the Senate’s Democratic minority. All four members of the minority voted against it, as did Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Wasilla. Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, did not vote, and Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, was absent from the vote.
Friday recap: House passes Medicaid reform bill
With a bipartisan vote, the Alaska House has approved a wide-ranging reform of the state’s government-run health care system.
Senate Bill 74, which includes a variety of fraud-busting and cost-saving measures, passed the House 33-6 late Friday. The bill has already been approved by the Senate and will return to that body for a largely pro forma vote to agree with changes made in the House.
If the Senate agrees with the House changes, the bill will head to the desk of Gov. Bill Walker, who is expected to sign it.
“I think this bill and the corrections bill, if we can get it through, will be some of the brightest spots” of the Legislative session, said Rep. Geran Tarr, D-Anchorage.
According to estimates provided by the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, the bill will save $31.7 million in the next fiscal year, which starts July 1. As more provisions of the bill become effective, the savings are expected to rise in subsequent years.
Some of the savings will result from the increased use of telemedicine in rural areas.
“Within this bill, we’re finally as a state embracing telemedicine, and that’s what excites me most,” said Rep. Lynn Gattis, R-Wasilla.
Also included its provisions are measures to reduce the use of emergency rooms for primary care, items to reduce fraud and overpayments, and a prescription database to limit the abuse of prescription drugs.
That last item was the driving force behind all six votes against the bill. Lawmakers who voted against SB 74 said they view the establishment of a mandatory database as government overreach.
“I think it is a huge invasion of our right to privacy,” said Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage.
Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake, said the bill’s complexity is a problem.
“I don’t think there’s anyone here who can tell us what’s going to happen once this bill is enacted,” he said. “This bill puts a mountain more of government into people’s lives.”
To critics of the prescription database, Rep. Dan Saddler, R-Eagle River, responded with a fiery speech declaiming lawmakers who talk tough about fighting opiate abuse but fail to take action.
The database is intended to prevent people from going doctor to doctor, getting many pill prescriptions to feed an addiction.
He referenced the nationwide epidemic of prescription opioid abuse, which has led to a surge in heroin abuse and heroin deaths.
“Maybe they died with their privacy intact, but how private was their life when their dead body is on the front page of the newspaper?” he said.
After his speech, which came before the final vote, House members defeated an amendment that would have made the drug database optional instead of mandatory.
Timber bill passes House
Also Friday, the House voted 31-5 in approval of Senate Bill 32, which expands the ability of the Alaska Department of Forestry to contract directly with a sawmill on a timber sale in a state forest.
The bill, proposed by the governor, is envisioned as a helping hand to Viking Lumber, the last midsized sawmill in Southeast Alaska.
Viking normally relies on federal timber sales, but there will not be enough timber from federal sales in the next few years to keep the sawmill operating. By selling directly to Viking, state forester Chris Maisch told lawmakers earlier this month, the state will keep the Prince of Wales Island sawmill operating, but Alaska will receive about 20 percent to 33 percent less revenue with a direct sale than it would in a competitive sale, which is the normal process for a timber sale.
The bill passed the Senate 20-0 last year.
Lawmakers demand regional regents
In the Senate, lawmakers voted 14-6 in favor of a plan to select members of the University of Alaska Board of Regents by geographical region.
House Bill 107, approved 26-13 in the House last year, requires the University of Alaska’s governing body to include one resident each from Fairbanks, Anchorage, the Mat-Su, Kenai Peninsula, Juneau and a non-road-system community.
A student and four at-large members are also included in the board’s roster.
The only existing restrictions on the board’s membership are that each member must be a U.S. citizen and an Alaska resident. A dedicated student seat also exists.
House angry about frankenfish
Representatives in the House voted unanimously 35-0 on Friday night to approve House Joint Resolution 28, a letter scorning the development of a genetically engineered salmon and asking Congress to require the labeling of genetically modified food.
As a resolution, HJR 28 lacks the legally binding power of a bill. It is effectively a sternly worded letter and message of intent.
Correction: A previous version of this story contained an incomplete synopsis of House Bill 210. It has been updated.