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Prison bill moving in Senate

Posted: Monday, May 13, 2002

The Senate Finance Committee on Sunday night approved a bill for a private prison in Whittier.

With just two days left in the regular session, the Legislature faced a logjam of bills this morning, from the routine to the historic. The session is scheduled for adjournment by midnight Tuesday, although a special session on subsistence has been called for Wednesday.

A bill authorizing a government-owned, privately operated 1,000-bed prison in Whittier was approved by the Finance Committee 6-3. The city would contract with the state, and Cornell Cos. Inc. would contract with the city.

The state has had "tremendous success" using private prison facilities in Arizona, said John Manly, a staffer with Rep. John Harris, a Valdez Republican whose district includes Whittier.

"There is no reason not to duplicate the success in Alaska," he said.

Manly also said the Whittier project differs from previous failed attempts for private prisons in Alaska. "The difference this year is we have a community that has done its homework and wants the project."

The bill, already approved by the House, includes a 98-bed expansion of the correctional facility in Bethel.

But the Knowles administration favors a more regional approach to increasing jail capacity, said Margot Knuth of the Department of Corrections.

For example, 100 more beds each are needed in Fairbanks and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, Knuth said. "What you need are regional beds where inmates who are pre-trial or who have short sentences can stay."

Other legislative developments:

* After a long struggle, the Legislature finished crafting a bill toughening drunken driving laws.

"After two years of work by the Legislature and the public, Alaskans will now enjoy the protection of the strongest anti-drunk driving laws in the country," said sponsor Norm Rokeberg, a Republican representative from Anchorage.

The bill raises the fine for a first-time offense from $250 to $1,500; allows 10-year or permanent driver's license revocation for felony drunken driving or refusal to take a chemical blood test; authorizes local government to seize vehicles used in the commission of drunken driving; and requires offenders to carry high-risk insurance.

Rokeberg addressed rehabilitation by supporting a therapeutic drug program and allowing courts to reduce fines and jail sentences after successful completion of treatment programs.

The bill now goes to the governor for his signature.

* The House was scheduled today to vote on a bill tightening the definition of "medically necessary" abortions under the Medicaid program.

The bill, passed by the House Finance Committee over the weekend, would eliminate psychological health as the basis for a government-funded abortion unless medication taken for an illness likely would harm the fetus, or would harm the woman if she didn't take it.

Senate sponsor Pete Kelly, a Fairbanks Republican, said he's trying to eliminate elective abortions, but critics say the state has been funding only medically necessary abortions. The Senate already has passed the bill, which attempts to get around court decisions that have frustrated the Legislature's effort to limit abortion funding.

* The Senate Finance Committee moved out "The Alaska Fair Tax" that would base income tax rates largely on the amounts that would be paid by Alaskans of various income levels under a 3 percent sales tax.

The tax, which would raise about $255 million when fully implemented, is expected to be soundly defeated on the Senate floor. Republicans appear to be moving it to the floor to reduce the possibility that Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles would call a special session on the $1 billion fiscal gap. Knowles has pushed the Senate to act on four revenue bills passed by the House, and Senate President Rick Halford said he hopes to have floor votes on all four.

* Members of the House debated Sunday whether or not they should be delegates to a constitutional convention, should Alaskans vote in favor of one on the November election ballot.

Rep. Sharon Cissna, an Anchorage Democrat, offered an amendment to a bill on convention procedures that would have made state elected officials or professional lobbyists ineligible. Rep. Con Bunde, an Anchorage Republican, complained that would be "tantamount to saying we don't want any doctors on the medical board."

The amendment was voted down 29-11 on a mostly party-line vote.

Rep. Beth Kerttula, a Juneau Democrat, was successful with an amendment clarifying that the 60 delegates, representing existing House and Senate districts, would be chosen in a nonpartisan election.

The convention bill, up for a final House vote today, generally reduces the role of the lieutenant governor in calling the convention. Under the bill, the call could be not be issued until Oct. 1, 2003, and delegates would be elected in November 2004. Under existing law, the lieutenant governor would be able to choose, in the call, the number of delegates and the manner of their election.

Bill McAllister can be reached at billm@juneauempire.com.



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