Some proposed legislation that Alaskans and their lawmakers thought of as priorities didn’t pass this session for a variety of reasons. Those bills aren’t dead, though some might be even more difficult to pass next year.
The Anchorage Daily News had a rundown recently of the big bills that stalled out and might return in the future, reporting that that the Legislature only passed 30 bills last session.
ADN reporter Iris Samuels says that’s a way to gauge how effective — or ineffective — lawmakers were. And Samuels says one of the main disagreements is a familiar one.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Iris Samuels: The biggest one is the size of the Permanent Fund dividend. And that’s been the question that has plagued legislative sessions for several years now, since 2016. And that’s a broad disagreement, but it’s really comes down to lawmakers’ different approaches to state government. Some people think that state government should essentially just give people as much money as it can and not do much else. And some people think that government needs to do a lot of different things. And I think that the dividend crystallizes that question. So it’s the question that everyone focuses on, but really, a lot of other questions are hiding behind that one issue.
Casey Grove: Yeah, for sure. And part of what hung things up during the legislative session, the regular session, was this idea that we needed to increase school funding, how much should that be, and there were discussions about how big the PFD should be in regards to this school funding increase. So there was a school funding increase that passed, but it’s not permanent. So this may come up again, it will come up again, probably. Can you tell me about that?
IS: There are a lot of lawmakers that see this as a top issue. And there were a couple of different bills introduced in both the House and Senate to achieve that goal of permanently increasing education funding. And there were discussions happening all throughout the session on this issue. But ultimately, they couldn’t get the bill across. But they did include this amount of funding, nearly $175 million worth of funding, in a one-time increase. And there is a bill that mirrors that amount that would be permanent. That bill passed the Senate, but it has not passed the House. So theoretically, the House could come back next year and pass that bill, and then the one-time increase we got this year will become permanent. Another option would be that the Senate comes back and they actually decide that they want a different bill that increases education funding even more, theoretically. And then that’s something that, again, would have to pass both chambers.
CG: Related to schools, but not on school funding, and this was a priority of our Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy, there was this parental rights bill. Can you remind me what that was and what ended up happening with it?
IS: Yeah, so this was a bill that the governor introduced a couple months after the session began. Gov. Dunleavy says that this is a bill about parental rights, but really what it does is it focuses on sex education. And it limits the ability to teach any content that relates to sex education or to gender, so you can’t teach anything that relates to that until third grade. And even after that, you have to get written parental permission. It would also have a few other components, like limiting the ability of transgender students to use bathrooms according to their preferred gender. So there was a huge backlash, and I think it’s safe to say that this was the most controversial, or one of the most controversial, bills of the session. From the very beginning, we knew this wouldn’t pass, because the bipartisan majority in the Senate said from the get go they would stay away from what they called social issues. They didn’t even schedule the bill for a hearing. But in the House, it was scheduled for several hearings. And every time it was scheduled for a public hearing, there were hours of people calling in, and the vast majority people that called in or testified in person were opposed to the bill.
CG: There was another bill, and actually this kind of came out of some reporting that the Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica did, about the state not investigating complaints of discrimination against LGBTQ folks. There was a bill introduced to protect those folks that also did not pass the Legislature. Tell me about that one.
IS: This is something that has been introduced in the past, but this year it got a lot more traction than it has in the past. So it passed to House committees, which was surprising, because in order to pass those committees that actually got some support from Republicans. And in the past, this was really just a nonstarter issue for a lot of Republicans in the House. Then it got to the House Judiciary Committee. That committee is stacked with some of the most conservative Republicans in the House, and there, Republican (Rep.) Sara Vance from Homer, she refused to schedule it for a hearing and that’s where it stalled.
CG: There were a couple different proposals for taxes that didn’t make it through anything. I think the governor, you know, even sort of implied he was going to introduce a sales tax bill. We never saw that. But when this (future) special session does happen to deal with a longer term fiscal plan, do you expect some of those tax bills to come up? And what should people expect out of that?
IS: Yeah, so Gov. Dunleavy has indicated to lawmakers that he plans to bring them back for a special session, potentially in October, to talk about what’s called the fiscal plan, the long-term plan to deal with the state’s financial situation, the structural deficit, the fact that, essentially, the state has more costs than it has revenue to cover them. So, theoretically, anything that has to do with those issues could be brought up in this special session. It’s worth mentioning that the governor has hinted he plans to have this special session, but he hasn’t fully committed to it. And we don’t actually have dates. There’s no concrete plan. So we think this could happen, but it’s not set in stone. And even if they are able to come together, which, again, would be at the governor’s discretion, it’s really unclear what they can agree on. Because to the extent that we saw any action on bills related to taxes or revenue in the regular session, we just saw the same disagreements that have been a part of discussions in past legislative sessions.
CG: OK, well, Iris, it’s summertime, the prospect of a special session seems months away. Are you looking forward to a summer without having to think about the Legislature?
IS: I am. Last year was an election year, so this will be a nice break from that, an entire summer where we don’t have to think about the Legislature. But it is kind of looming on the horizon. If we don’t have a solution to these big questions the state faces, it means that a lot of people face uncertainty. So we’ll continue to to think about it, even if not every day.