Alaska Legislature pushes through flurry of bills as session gets down to the wire

Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, left, Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, center, and Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, each a co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee, await a conference committee meeting on May 13, 2024. (Eric Stone/Alaska Public Media)

State lawmakers are pushing through a rush of bills in the closing days of this year’s legislative session. All bills filed over the past two years die at the end of the session. That’s this Wednesday.

So there’s a lot moving forward — a big crime bill, a carbon storage and energy bill, and more. And with the clock ticking, the House spent hours debating and eventually passing a bill restricting trans girls from being on girls’ sports teams.

Alaska Public Media state government reporter Eric Stone joined Alaska News Nightly host Casey Grove to fill us in on what’s going on in Juneau.

Listen:

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This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Casey Grove: Tell us about that dramatic debate over the trans bill.

Eric Stone: So the bill would put into law something that is already in practice by state school board regulation — trans girls would be banned from girls’ sports teams. 

This is an issue that a lot of people feel very strongly about. Supporters of the ban say it keeps girls’ sports fair and safe. Opponents say the bill would unconstitutionally discriminate against trans kids and that similar bans have been successfully challenged in court in other states. 

So both sides were pretty dug in. It got pretty heated at times — the Alaska Beacon has a good rundown of how wild it got inside the room, people shouting at each other, security called into the chamber, just a lot of passion.

The House minority, made up of Democrats, independents and one Republican, put on something of a filibuster by offering just a ton of amendments highlighting flaws in the bill. None wound up passing.And then the bill passed with 22 votes late on Sunday night. 

The only non-Republican to vote for the bill was Rep. Dan Ortiz, a Ketchikan independent. I talked to him about that vote today. He said it was a very tough decision, but he said he was doing his best to represent the views of his constituents. He said 70 or 80 percent of his constituents, by his estimation, agreed with the broad idea of the bill. He told me he has serious concerns about the details of how the ban would be implemented, but he said it was clear the bill was going nowhere — it is not going to pass the Senate this session. 

So I think that’s a pretty good illustration of what this bill does: it highlights a campaign issue for this fall’s election.

CG: But there are lots of bills that look like they might actually pass. Tell us about this crime bill.

ES: So the seed of this bill comes from Gov. Mike Dunleavy, and it’s an effort to address the fentanyl crisis across the state. In its initial form, it upgrades penalties on drug dealers, making it so that if someone overdoses and dies from a drug they sell, the dealer can be charged with murder. Currently they can be charged with manslaughter. And that applies not only to fentanyl, but meth and a long list of other drugs.

And then, Senate Judiciary Committee chair Sen. Matt Claman, an Anchorage Democrat, packed a bunch more stuff into it — a bill renaming “child pornography” to “child sexual abuse material,” another bill that requires out-of-state sex offenders who move to Alaska to register with the state, and allowing hearsay in grand jury proceedings. There were some changes in Senate Finance, one of which limits hearsay to police officers. Basically, the idea is to make it so that crime victims don’t have to testify to grand juries. They’d still have to testify at trial, though.

The bill has moved pretty quickly, but the American Civil Liberties Union has come out against it, saying it’s ineffective and unconstitutional.

That’s expected to pass the Senate tomorrow, and it’d need a final vote in the House to go to the governor’s desk.

CG: That’s quite a bit all in one bill.

ES: Yes, it is. But that’s how things are going these days. There’s not much time to get through committees, get things from the House to the Senate and vice versa, so there’s a lot of bill-stuffing going on. And sometimes that’s creating some consternation.

For example, there’s House Bill 347, which basically provides some guardrails on the property tax assessment process. If you’re a property owner, every so often, the city or borough comes around, estimates how much your house or business or whatever is worth, and that’s what they use for your property tax bill. Clarise Larson at KTOO wrote it up when it first passed out of the House. 

But what’s interesting is that in the past couple days, the Senate Finance Committee added a proposal that would vastly expand the property tax exemption for people over 65, widows and disabled veterans. The exemption would go from $150,000 to $450,000. Two co-chairs of the Finance Committee, Sitka Republican Bert Stedman and Bethel Democrat Lyman Hoffman, say it’s an effort to keep up with inflation and keep tax bills down for seniors on fixed incomes. 

But the bill is getting some pushback from municipalities and the Anchorage delegation in the Legislature.

And I should also mention a much higher-profile example of bill-stuffing — House Bill 50, which has to do with storing carbon dioxide underground. 

That one is looking like an energy omnibus. It’s got a bill promoting geothermal energy, plus some stuff that addresses the natural gas crunch in Cook Inlet. There’s a bill that would give state loans to oil and gas companies in the inlet — called “reserve-based lending” — to juice drilling. And there’s a bill to regulate natural gas storage, which is supposed to keep gas prices down. That one’s up for a final vote tomorrow.

Eric Stone covers state government, tracking the Alaska Legislature, state policy and its impact on all Alaskans. Reach him at estone@alaskapublic.org.

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