The culture wars were fought to a standstill, no votes were cast that changed the state’s election system and people in some parts of the state can still vape tax-free.
Thousands of Alaskans expressed a wide range of fiery opinions about the most controversial legislation introduced this session, but when lawmakers adjourned for the year nearly all of the proposals remained stuck somewhere in the committee process.
Many of the bills and resolutions will undoubtedly resurface next January as the 33rd Legislature enters its second year. Leaders with the Republican-led House and bipartisan Senate majority said their differing political alignments mean ideological measures will be tough to pass, but for plenty of other proposals it simply was a matter of running out of time since the focus was on the dominant issues of passing a budget and the size of the Permanent Fund dividend.
“What often happens is a second session is when those bills actually wind up being passed,” said Senate President Gary Stevens, a Kodiak Republican. “I have a couple of bills myself that I’d like to see passed. Eventually, I realized they couldn’t be done this year. We were just tied up too much with the issue of the dividend and the budget and how we’re going to pay for everything.”
Bills that appear to have a reasonable chance of passage next year include a permanent increase in the base student allocation in the wake of a successful one-time education funding increase this year, raising the age to purchase tobacco products and imposing a tax on vaping products, and allowing the involuntary commitment of individuals considered dangerous in psychiatric facilities for up to two years.
Legislation unlikely to become law — based on happenings during this year’s session — including a “parental rights” bill that imposes restrictions on sex/gender references in public schools and require parental approval of curriculum for their children, and repealing ranked choice voting.
There’s also a middle ground of uncertainty for some bills, including one banning discrimination against LGBTQ+ people in situations such as housing and the workplace, boosting public employee pensions, and Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposal to earn revenues by storing vast amounts of carbon dioxide in underground reservoirs.
Some of those bills received hours of written and spoken testimony from many hundreds of residents, who sometimes jammed call-in lines to capacity for up to six hours during committee hearings until they were adjourned due to time limitations.
The following is the status of several notable House and Senate bills still pending, and their possible fate next year based on actions during this year’s session. Not included are a number of fiscal bills such as sales tax, oil tax and PFD formula proposals, which are likely to become part of a special session focusing on a long-range financial plan for the state if Dunleavy follows through on statements that such a session is likely.
Dunleavy heatedly denied it was a “don’t say gay” bill, and asserted it ought to unify parents and teachers on behalf of students, but it (as with similar bills in some other states) became the most bitterly divided issue of the session among Alaskans expressing their opinions to lawmakers. The original bill largely banned sex and gender references, required parental permission for their kids to take sex ed classes or be addressed by a different name/gender, and required school officials to notify parents of any change in students’ health including declarations of sexual preference and gender identity (with exceptions for dangerous situations). The bill then got modified by the House Education Committee to expand parental approval of the entire curriculum, while removing a provision saying students must use restrooms and locker rooms matching their official birth gender. Not that it matters much since the original bill was considered dead on arrival if it got to the Senate and the changes aren’t going to infuse new life into the proposal.
— Permanently increasing the per-student education funding formula (SB 52)
Another education issue topping the debate among lawmakers and the public was a meaningful increase to the BSA for the first time since 2017. The most fervent supporters sought a 21% increase to the $5,960 per-student allocation to make up for inflation during the six-year time span, but that was reduced to $680 (about 11%) next year and $120 the following year in a House bill that became a potential vehicle for the full Legislature. But the House majority balked and instead offered a one-time increase of $680 and a pledge to further debate a permanent increase next year. The Senate majority and House minority provided the votes to include the one-time funding in the budget, but many expressed dissatisfaction there was no assurance the increase would continue in future years, let alone adjust for inflation. There’s no clear sense among legislators as of the end of this year’s session if the House majority will back a BSA increase next year, but if lawmakers don’t approve that or another one-time increase they’ll be responsible for big drop in education spending during an election year.
— Repeal ranked choice voting (HB 4)
This proposal may lose the legislative battle, but ultimately win the war at the polls as petitioners are seeking to put the repeal on the ballot during next year’s election. Voters narrowly passed ranked choice voting in 2020 and it got widespread national acclaim for its “moderating” influence during the 2022 elections. But conservatives in particular who call the process unfair and confusing, including defeated U.S. Senate candidate Kelly Tshibaka and defeated U.S. House candidate Sarah Palin, are pointing to multiple recent opinion polls showing a majority of respondents agree ranked choice and open primaries should be repealed. The bill has made some progress in the Republican-led House, but Senate leaders say they do not support it.
Increasing compensation for government workers is often a tough sell outside of Juneau and next year’s session is unlikely to be an exception, especially judging by public reaction to actions at the Capitol that resulted in a 67% hike for legislators and a roughly 60% reduction in this year’s PFD compared to last year. But a couple of big factors may work in the bill’s favor: 1) it’s one of the top two priorities of the Senate majority and 2) supporters say it’s a critical part of solving the state’s crisis-level worker shortage which is causing a wide range of problems also getting widespread public attention. However, a huge X factor surfaced during the final few days of this year’s session when a study was presented to the Senate Finance Committee suggesting restoring a defined benefits pension to state employees may cost far more than earlier estimates indicated.
– Prohibiting LGBTQ+ discrimination (HB99)
This bill was introduced after news reports about the Alaska Human Rights Commission quietly dropping discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ people amid last year’s election season. The bill would restore discrimination bans for housing, employment and other areas, but it is current stuck in the House Judiciary Committee where Rep. Sarah Vance, a Homer Republican who chairs the committee, refused to give it hearing. An effort by the bill’s sponsor on the House floor to get the bill removed from Vance’s committee failed, but it appears from votes and statements on related measures there are enough House votes for the bill itself to pass if leaders allow it to make it to a floor vote.
This bill was spurred by the stabbing of a woman in Anchorage by a man who assaulted two other women two months earlier but was ruled incompetent to stand trial. It allows the state to involuntarily hold people in psychiatric facilities for up to two years if a person is determined to have a history of violence or could be a danger to the public or themselves. The Senate passed the bill 14-6 and supporters were hoping the House would act quickly to approve it before adjournment this year. But the bill, like the LGBTQ+ discrimination bill, stalled in the House Judiciary Committee and a similar floor effort to get the bill moved from there failed. While the bill’s fate remains uncertain, even Vance as the Judiciary Committee chair voiced support for the victim’s desire to see the proposal become law.
— Vape tax and increasing age to purchase tobacco products (SB 89)
Since the Senate president is sponsoring the bill its chances have to be taken seriously, even though Dunleavy vetoed similar legislation last year. It raises the age to purchase tobacco products to 21 instead of 19 and imposes a 25% tax on retail sales of vape products. The Senate passed the bill by a 14-6 vote, but hopes the House would pass it during the final few days of the session proved futile.
— Increasing punishment for felony fentanyl and other drug crimes (HB 66)
The House passed this “tough on drugs” bill introduced by Dunleavy by a 35-5 margin, which eliminates good time prison credit for some offenses and elevates the sale/manufacture of certain drugs resulting in a death to murder instead of manslaughter. However, a House member noted only two individuals in Alaska have been convicted of manslaughter for deaths resulting from offenses defined in the bill during the past 15 years. Concerns it would impair rehabilitation efforts for offenders serving short prison sentences were also voiced by some legislators. Its fate the Senate is unknown since it did not hold a hearing on the bill.
• Contact Mark Sabbatini at email@example.com or (907) 957-2306.