Thirty-one bills passed House and Senate this year, the third fewest of any first-year session since statehood
By James Brooks
Alaska’s legislative session ended last month, and Gov. Mike Dunleavy has yet to consider most of the 31 bills passed by both House and Senate this spring.
The Legislature’s 31 bills are the third-fewest of any first-year session since statehood. Only 2017 (26 bills) and 2019 (29 bills) had fewer.
It isn’t clear which, if any, bills Dunleavy will veto. He already nixed one of the 31, vetoing a bill that would have turned down pay increases for members of the executive branch.
The veto was the first step in a complicated process that saw legislators and the governor collaborate to install new public-salary board members who approved raises for both legislators and the governor.
The Legislature failed to pass a bill negating the board’s new recommendations, which means legislators will be paid $84,000 per year, plus up to roughly $37,000 in per diem expense payments.
The biggest bills of the year are the omnibus budget bill and the annual mental health budget. Dunleavy could veto or reduce line items within the budget before the start of the state’s fiscal year on July 1, but with one month to go, he hasn’t given any clues about his thinking.
With oil prices far below last year’s expectations, lawmakers were also forced to approve a fast-track supplemental budget bill that allows the state to spend from the Constitutional Budget Reserve in order to balance the budget through June 30.
First year of two for the 33rd Legislature
The Legislature operates on a two-year cycle, and in all but one Legislature since statehood, more bills became law in the second year than the first. The exception was the first Legislature, in 1959.
That’s because it takes time for legislators to understand what a colleague is seeking to pass. The usual goal for lawmakers is to have a bill pass one half of the Legislature in the first year, then get it across the finish line in the second year.
Even if it doesn’t become law, it’s positioned to move quickly when the new Legislature convenes, after the election.
Sen. David Wilson, R-Wasilla, was stymied last year in his attempt to criminalize the harassment of 911 operators and dispatchers; the Legislature passed the bill this year, in part because lawmakers were already familiar with it.
The same thing happened in the House, where Speaker of the House Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla, urged the Legislature to restrict the state’s ability to close shooting ranges and halt gun and ammunition sales during a declared disaster.
The request came as a result of actions taken during the COVID-19 pandemic, and both House and Senate passed it before the end of the session.
Former state Rep. Adam Wool, D-Fairbanks, had urged lawmakers to deregulate electric bicycles, proposing legislation to do so before he decided against running for re-election in 2022.
The person who took over his seat was his chief of staff, now-Rep. Ashley Carrick, D-Fairbanks, and she guided the bill through the Capitol this year.
Regular topics return again
The various state’s boards and commissions always get attention from the Legislature; this year, lawmakers amended the membership and rules for the board covering architects and engineers.
The Alaska Minerals Commission, state medical board and the board of certified direct-entry midwives all had their duties extended for a few more years; state law requires most boards and commissions to be reauthorized by the Legislature every so often.
Legislators decided to remove the expiration date from the state’s renewable energy grant fund, making that account permanent. The fund, occasionally stocked with cash by the Legislature, distributes grants to projects statewide.
Legislators went the other way with five defunct programs, voting to repeal them from state law under an effort from Sen. James Kaufman, R-Anchorage.
Ceremonial holidays are another common occurrence in the Legislature, and lawmakers approved three this year.
The Legislature declared October as Filipino-American History Month, made September 10 Alaska Community Health Aide Appreciation Day and established June 9 as Don Young Day.
Legislators also passed the state’s regular revisor’s bill, which fixes typographical errors and minor mistakes in legislation passed during the previous two-year legislative cycle.
Lawmakers are required to authorize new commemorative license plates, which makes bills designating new ones a regular occurrence in the Capitol. A proposal that Sen. Kelly Merrick, R-Eagle River, calls “the license plate bill to end all license plate bills” would shift the authority to the Department of Motor Vehicles. It passed the Senate, but not the House, before the end of the regular session.
Health care and going backward to go forward
Veterinarians were exempted from the state’s opioid-abuse-fighting prescription drug database, and the laws governing the state pharmacy board were modernized in a pair of bills introduced by Rep. Justin Ruffridge, R-Soldotna, and passed by the Legislature.
Another major pharmacy-related bill, regulating pharmacy benefit managers, was introduced by Sen. Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, but didn’t get a hearing during the session. Several states have passed laws regulating benefit managers, citing excessive profit-taking that contributes to rising health care costs.
The veterinarian bill was intended to resolve a problem created by the Legislature itself eight years ago.
Lawmakers this year also passed a bill intended to fix a problem created when they allowed the state’s Power Cost Equalization Endowment Fund to be managed in a manner similar to the Alaska Permanent Fund.
In the first year after the switch, the billion-dollar PCE fund, managed by the Alaska Department of Revenue, posted negative returns. In response, the Legislature voted this year to switch the fund’s management from the Department of Revenue to the Alaska Permanent Fund Corp.
Lawmakers considered, but ultimately did not advance, a bill from Rep. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski, that would have switched the management of the annual Permanent Fund dividend from the department to the corporation.
The Senate — but not the House — passed a bill that provides a new formula for the Permanent Fund dividend. Disputes over the dividend’s amount remain the most contentious topic in the Capitol.
Two State of the State goals accomplished
In his State of the State address, Dunleavy said the passage of a bill extending Medicaid coverage for new mothers was a priority. Legislators agreed, passing that bill in early May after Rep. Will Stapp, R-Fairbanks, expanded it to cover even more women than the governor had proposed.
Separately, before the end of the session, the Legislature combined two bills dealing with home care for seniors and the disabled, then passed them under one umbrella. The original bill was one proposed by the governor.
Also during the State of the State, Dunleavy asked lawmakers to pass a pair of bills that would allow the state to make money from the emerging market in carbon dioxide containment. Legislators passed one of those bills, which allows the state to set up a system of carbon credits using state forest land.
The Legislature didn’t pass a bill that would allow the state to make money from companies that collect carbon dioxide and inject it underground. That bill remains in process, but lawmakers did take one piece of the bill and put it into the bill that passed.
That section allows the state to ask the Environmental Protection Agency for permission to take over regulation of some types of injection wells.
Native corporations accomplish goal
Alaska Native corporations got help from the Legislature this year after lawmakers voted to change the threshold needed for them to change their articles of incorporation.
Corporations established before July 1, 1989 — which includes almost all Native corporations — need shareholders representing two-thirds of outstanding shares to approve amendments to their articles of incorporation, the corporate constitution.
Many Native corporations have been expanding their shareholder base, making the two-thirds threshold increasingly difficult, and they sought a change requiring only a bare majority to approve. The Legislature passed the bill, which was sponsored by Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage.
Environmental bills pass
The Legislature voted to ban the use of PFAS —
toxic chemicals contained in some firefighting foam — after Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, successfully inserted the ban into a bill from Rep. Stanley Wright, R-Anchorage, that allows builders to use environmentally friendly refrigerants.
Lawmakers also voted to clarify the oil-spill regulations covering boats that transfer fuel to other boats, stating in a new law that oil barges and tank vessels should be regulated as ships, not the same way that land-based oil terminals are.
Oil terminals on land are required to have a spill response plan based on a spill from their largest tank; ships are required to have a plan to deal with a percentage of their total cargo. Before the change, signed by the governor last week, it wasn’t clear what standard applied.
In an attempt to help local sawmills and homebuilders, the Legislature approved a program that will allow locally trained sawmill operators to test and stamp their lumber for quality.
Currently, that lumber must be tested by a Lower 48 organization, something that adds costs.
The lumber could be used in small residential projects, and the bill was a rare measure that got support from both environmental groups and pro-construction organizations.
Rep. Mike Cronk, R-Tok, led lawmakers to pass a bill that allows shrinking small towns to surrender some of their powers. At the request of the town of Tanana, he sponsored legislation that allows a first-class city to request the state boundary commission to strip the city of some of its powers if it drops below the minimum population needed to first become a first-class city.
Tanana wants to be part of a larger rural school district, but state law requires first-class cities to run their own districts.
Kiehl and Cronk successfully worked to pass legislation that gives disabled veterans and active-duty members of the Alaska National Guard a free fur-trapping license.
Legislators passed a pair of bills dealing with ID cards. In one move, they waived the one-year waiting period between the time someone gets a driver’s license and the time they’re eligible for an Alaska commercial driver’s license.
Backers of the bill said that waiting period, which isn’t in federal law, penalized immigrants and rural Alaskans who get their licenses later in life.
In a separate bill, lawmakers mandated that the Alaska Department of Corrections help newly released prisoners obtain an ID card if they don’t already have one. Experts in rehabilitation said the lack of an official ID is a hurdle preventing people from reentering society after prison.
Big topics didn’t make the cut
The Legislature voted to increase the salaries of attorneys in the state Office of Victims Rights, but broader legislation dealing with crime and legal aid didn’t pass this year.
The House and Senate failed to act on a proposal that would increase the number of attorneys able to help poor Alaskans facing civil trials, and it failed to pass a bill strengthening criminal penalties for drug dealers whose product kills someone.
The latter bill — which passed the House but not the Senate — became tangled with a different piece of criminal justice legislation that passed the Senate but not the House. The latter bill seeks to change the rules that govern how the state treats people who are accused of a crime but not competent to stand trial.
Before the end of the session, lawmakers unsuccessfully tried to find a compromise that incorporated both items. That failed, but either, or both, bills can return next year.
A similar situation occurred with a proposal to increase the state’s base student allocation, the formula that dictates how much money school districts receive per student.
After a bill increasing the BSA stalled in the House Finance Committee, the idea was added to a separate Senate-passed bill that funds greater internet access in public schools. Opposition among members of the predominantly Republican House majority meant both ideas failed to pass before the end of the year. Again, either can return next year.
Lawmakers included a one-year, temporary funding increase in this year’s budget, but it isn’t clear whether that is acceptable to the governor, who could veto it from the budget.
A Senate plan to revive a state pension, trumpeted by the 17-member Senate supermajority, failed to pass the Senate before the end of the year. It remains in the Senate Finance Committee, and lawmakers said the proposal is unlikely to pass through the Capitol before the 2024 election.
Election-reform legislation also failed to pass this year, despite the efforts of lawmakers including Sen. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, and Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer.
Vance proposed the repeal of the state’s ranked choice voting system, while Kawasaki supported an omnibus, bipartisan approach that makes amendments to the existing system to improve security and ease of access.
James Brooks with the Alaska Beacon is a longtime Alaska reporter, having previously worked at the Anchorage Daily News, Juneau Empire, Kodiak Mirror and Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.