Alaska Legislature’s session will dodge record for fewest bills

Legislators pass a flurry of bills in final days before adjournment

Conference Committee members Rep. Steve Thompson, R-Fairbanks, left, shakes hands with Sen. Donald Olson, R-Golovin, after the committee finished its work on the budgets at the Capitol on Thursday, May 10, 2018. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

In the final days of the two-year legislative session, lawmakers were making up for lost time. At the end of their first year, the 30th Alaska Legislature was the least productive in state history. The second year changed that.

 

Through 5 p.m. Friday, 120 bills had passed both the House and the Senate. That’s more than the 115 that passed in the 29th Legislature (which met in 2015 and 2016) and the 115 that passed in the 27th Legislature (which met in 2011 and 2012).

Among the bills passing in the final days of last week were some significant pieces of legislation.

‘Minibus’ crime bill (HB 312)

On Friday, the Alaska Legislature approved a small omnibus crime bill, the so-called “minibus” that combines several crime-fighting measures proposed by Gov. Bill Walker and various lawmakers. Those separate measures had been advancing through the Legislature separately but were combined into one bill to speed their passage.

The most significant piece of the bill allows judges to issue bail conditions other than required by an algorithmic tool created under the criminal justice reform known as SB 91.

“This does return discretion to judges, however, judges can still use the tool,” said Rep. Chuck Kopp, R-Anchorage.

Lawmakers and others had criticized the tool as creating “catch and release” for low-level offenses.

The bill also allows the state to use criminal history from other states in the algorithmic tool. Other sections of the bill allow the attorney general to place drugs on the schedule of controlled substances and criminalize assaults against medical workers.

Borrowing for oil and gas tax credits (HB 331)

Also Friday, the Alaska Senate voted 14-5 in favor of a bill that allows the state to borrow up to $1 billion that will be used to pay off tax credits owed to oil and gas companies.

The Legislature has already ended the program that issued the credits, but Walker has vetoed more than minimum payments on the debt for the past few years. That has allowed the debt to stack up, and the state was expected to pay several hundred million dollars in the next few years.

Rather than add those payments to the state’s deficit, Walker proposed a program that encourages companies to collect less than they are owed in order to be paid more quickly.

Reforms for foster care (HB 151)

A longtime effort of Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, passed the House and Senate on Thursday night when HB 151 passed its final legislative hurdle.

Gara, a former foster child, has long been pushing for reforms to the way the state handles the cases of foster children.

If signed into law, the bill puts limits on caseworkers, an act that will require the state to hire more. The bill also mandates training for new caseworkers and makes other changes to speed the process for children returning to their original homes or finding new homes.

Rehire of retired teachers (SB 185)

Also Thursday, the House approved a bill sponsored by Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, that allows school districts to re-hire retired teachers on a short-term basis. The bill was carried in the House by Rep. Jennifer Johnston, R-Anchorage.

Enhanced 911 (SB 215)

Boroughs and cities may require businesses to install “enhanced 911” systems that provide the location of a caller to a 911 dispatcher. While landline phones have long provided an address to 911 dispatchers, that information can pose a problem in a big building, such as a hotel, that might have many telephone lines at the same address.

SB 215, sponsored by Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, allows boroughs and cities to require that phone lines provide an exact room number if 911 is dialed.

Fishing loan increases (HB 56)

Fishermen can borrow more money from the state’s Alaska Commercial Fishing Loan Fund in this measure from Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan. HB 56, passed Thursday, allows fishermen to borrow up to $400,000 for commercial fishing entry permits and individual fishing quotas. They can also borrow up to that amount to upgrade their gear or fishing boat. The old cap was $300,000.

Electronic fish and game license (HB 260)

Recreational fishermen and hunters (as well as commercial fishermen) may benefit from House Bill 260, sponsored by Rep. Dan Saddler, R-Eagle River. This bill clarifies that Alaskans can keep a digital copy of their hunting and fishing licenses on their cellphones, and that wildlife troopers must accept that copy as proof of registration.

Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, pointed out in a floor debate that the bill doesn’t cover harvest records or duck stamps and, “sitting in a duck blind at 5 degrees in November, your phone’s going to die.”

Bills that didn’t pass

While the last days of session typically see a surge in legislation, most bills don’t make the cut in the final accounting. The House introduced 413 bills by the end of Friday; the Senate introduced 215. Only about one-sixth of the bills introduced this year will have passed both House and Senate in the final accounting.

Among the bills that died is HB 199, a proposal to amend protections for the state’s salmon-bearing rivers. That bill was proposed by Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, simultaneous with a similar ballot measure, but it never gained traction in the legislature and never advanced through the House.

Similarly, House Bill 75, by Rep. Geran Tarr, D-Anchorage, never advanced to a vote in the House despite being the only significant gun-control measure to garner attention after a mass shooting at a Florida high school.

Rallies in front of the Capitol were not enough to overcome the opposition of the National Rifle Association and lawmakers swayed by that organization’s arguments.

In the Senate, a measure forbidding child marriage never received a hearing. Senate Bill 133, by Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, would have forbidden unemancipated minors from being married. Alaska currently allows children as young as 14 to be married, under certain circumstances.

Senate Bill 76, a sweeping reform of the state’s alcohol laws, was proposed by Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, and passed the Senate 20-0. Micciche decided to kill the bill late in the session after it picked up a controversial amendment that would have cut the daily serving sizes at the state’s breweries and distilleries.


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


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