On Alaska lawmakers’ wish list: income taxes, a ban on police chokeholds and business protections from COVID lawsuits

A four story concrete building
Lawmakers will push their newly proposed bills at the Alaska State Capitol starting later this month. (Skip Gray/360 North)

Preseason for the new Alaska Legislature kicked off Friday, when lawmakers unveiled an array of bills they plan to introduce when the session begins on Jan. 19.

So far, half of the Legislature’s 60 members have “prefiled” bills. Another batch will be released next week.

Some of the legislation advances familiar concepts that have failed to get traction in the past — levying state income taxes, adopting Daylight Saving Time year-round — but there are plenty of new ideas, too.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Palmer GOP Rep. DeLena Johnson is proposing House Bill 4, which would exempt businesses and employees from liability for customers’ exposure to the virus, as long as there isn’t gross negligence.

Anchorage Democrat Rep. Andy Josephson is proposing House Bill 45, assuring compensation for frontline workers and responders for illness-related absences during pandemics. Josephson also is introducing House Bill 33 to increase penalties for oil spills, and House Bill 51, which would allow judges to impose stiffer sentences for crimes that target person’s gender identity or sexual orientation.

Sutton GOP Rep. George Rauscher’s House bills 1 and 12 would mandate audits of the way that municipalities spent their federal pandemic relief aid, and move legislative business to Anchorage, respectively.

Two Democrat representatives — Adam Wool of Fairbanks and Sara Hannan of Juneau — are proposing state-level income taxes. Wool’s proposal, House Bill 37, sets the tax rate at a flat 2.5%, and includes new guidelines for the Permanent Fund dividend. Hannan’s House Bill 9 is a progressive tax, with higher rates for higher-earning Alaskans. The lowest proposed tax rate is 2.5%, while income over $250,000 is taxed at 7%.

Ketchikan independent Rep. Dan Ortiz is resurrecting a perennial proposal to make Daylight Saving Time year-round in House Bill 31. And Fairbanks Democratic Rep. Grier Hopkins, in House Bill 39, proposes to allow 16- and 17-year olds to preregister to vote.

In the Senate, Anchorage Democrat Elvi Gray-Jackson has several bills to boost oversight of police and tighten limits on their use of force. Senate Bill 1 would bar chokeholds, for example, while Senate Bill 3 would require police officers to give verbal warnings before firing their guns.

Senate Bill 13, from Anchorage Democrat Tom Begich, would boost state property taxes on oil infrastructure by 50%. He’s also proposing Senate Bill 8 to enhance early education and reading programs, and Senate Bill 16, requiring the Alaska State Commission for Human Rights publish an annual report on compensation and pay equality across variables like race, sex, religion, and age, among others.

Senate Bill 25 from Anchorage Democratic Sen. Bill Wielechowski would resurrect and enhance a state financial transparency website that’s been eliminated by GOP Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration.

Wasilla Republican Mike Shower, in Senate Bill 14, would allow the governor to ignore Alaska Judicial Council nominations for apellate and district court judges, and instead appoint candidates who would face confirmation by the Legislature.

Two proposed constitutional amendments target the Alaska Permanent Fund.

House Joint Resolution 1 is from Sitka Democrat Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins. It aims to preserve the fund for future generations by capping the amount of money lawmakers can spend from it each year.

Additional spending could only happen by a five-sixths vote by both the House and Senate.

Senate Joint Resolution 1, from Wielechowski, would enshrine the Permanent Fund dividend in the Alaska Constitution.

In total, lawmakers unveiled 94 bills Friday. In the first year of the previous two-year legislative session, just 10% of prefiled bills ultimately passed into law, though others may have taken effect by being incorporated into other successful legislation.

Nathaniel Herz is an Anchorage-based journalist. He's been a reporter in Alaska for a decade, and is currently reporting for Alaska Public Media. Find more of his work by subscribing to his newsletter, Northern Journal, at natherz.substack.com. Reach him at natherz@gmail.com.

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