The highlights—and lowlights—of the end of the legislative session
The Legislature's final day was a flurry of legislative battles seeing some really important bills pass, some sneak through and a load of others die just inches from the finish line.
Happy Friday, Alaska!
In this edition: The end of the legislative session was almost, nearly normal this year (turns out a lot of money helps smooth things out) that included a wild final day that will take a while to truly unpack to understand just what happened and what it’ll all mean, but I’ll give a shot at at least unpacking some of the big stories from Day 121. Also, a real quick weekend watch.
Current mood: 😎
Alaska Reads Act gets through
Depending on who you ask, the Alaska Reads Act is the biggest and best step forward on education in forever or the biggest setback that will only keeping the state’s inequities further. We’ll find out as it’s set to become law. The battle over the Alaska Reads Act, a new reading intervention program that backers hope will get children reading by the time they enter fourth grade, has been one of the quiet battles raging throughout the legislative session. The idea is, essentially, that reading is a really fundamental piece of education and improving reading proficiency through targeted intervention like reading tutors and individualized educational plans is the fix. Opponents say reading’s great but aren’t so sure the resources will actually be there for children who attend rural schools, lower-income schools or multilingual schools and the program will just reinforce the fundamental inequities in the state’s educational system that are already creating some huge disparities when it comes to achievement. They worry that while the bill promises additional resources—and a whopping $7.6 million increase to annual K-12 funding through the student funding formula—that the focus on standardized testing and implementation of new avenues that make it easier to hold children back will just make things much, much worse. Those concerns led to Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel, spiking the bill in the House Education Committee only to see it revived—largely without consideration to the House’s concerns and changes (the House Education Committee heard something like 60 amendments to the bill)—and rolled into another House bill. The legislation ultimately passed the House on a 21-19 vote with House Speaker Stutes breaking from the majority of the majority. Suffice it to say, in a session where Stutes frequently broke ranks with her own majority, this one seemed to be the most frustrating of the bunch.
College scholarships back on the table, for now
When the courts ruled against University of Alaska students who were trying to protect the state’s scholarship endowment from being liquidated in the annual Constitutional Budget Reserve sweep, the judges said the Legislature could guard it from future sweeps by passing a new law. The Legislature did just that, passing legislation that designates the Higher Education Investment Fund and a pair of Alaska Marine Highway System funds from the sweep by moving them outside of the general fund. The budget includes some $490 million intended to refill the Higher Education Investment Fund after its money was diverted to the Constitutional Budget Reserve. While both actions seemed widely popular, it’s now down to Gov. Mike Dunleavy—whose actions led to the liquidation of the fund in the first place—to approve both the legislation and the corresponding funding. I have my doubts.
Alaska’s sexual assault laws get modernized
Alaska sexual assault laws are getting a much-needed modernization, including updating the 40-year-old definition of consent that made prosecuting rape and sexual assault cases difficult. Under the current law, saying no isn’t enough to prove there wasn’t consent in a rape case and it required victims to show that they used force or threatened force against the perpetrator. That meant people who froze or didn’t fight—a very common response to trauma—were seen as consenting in the eyes of the law. The updated law—which is the work of Reps. Geran Tarr and Sara Rasmussen—strengthens the definition of consent to reflect reality, noting that “lack of consent through words or conduct means there is no consent.” The legislation also tackles several different areas of sexual assault and domestic violence law, including criminalizing rape by fraud (essentially tricking someone into giving their consent by impersonating someone they would give consent to) and tackling the backlog of rape kits. The legislation produced some… less-than-great debates along the way (mostly driven by Reps. David Eastman and Chris Kurka) but ultimately passed both the House and Senate unanimously.
Go deeper via Alaska Beacon: Legislature modernizes 40-year-old definition of consent in sexual assault cases
They repealed laws that had no business being laws in the first place
Speaking about outdated laws, the Legislature passed at least two bills that take aim at laws that had no business being on the books in the first place: Child marriages and the law that allows businesses to pay disabled employees less than minimum wage.
The Legislature is bringing the end to most child marriages with the passage of House Bill 62, which not only eliminates the laws that allow children ages 14 and 15 to get married with court approval (which is usually young girls marrying much older men) but it also puts much higher scrutiny on the remaining allowable child marriages. Yes, the legislation still allows children 16 and 17 get married but it caps the age of the older party to three years older and requires court approval. The legislation passed through the Senate with unanimous approval but passed the House on a final vote of 33-7. The legislation was originally just dealing with the number of marriage witnesses, a measure that sponsor Rep. Matt Claman said is aimed at attracting more destination weddings to the state, but was amended on the House floor earlier this year to eliminate marriages for 14- and 15-year-olds. That measure ran into opposition from extreme-right Republicans, who argued doing so would infringe on religious beliefs. The Senate added heightened scrutiny for the remaining marriages.
Go deeper via Alaska Beacon: Alaska Legislature votes to limit child marriage
The Legislature also passed Senate Bill 185, which eliminates a provision of the state’s minimum wage law that allows employers to pay employees below minimum wage if the employee “is impaired by physical or mental disability, age or injury.” Backers of the measure called the current law was demeaning with bill sponsor Senate President Peter Micciche writing in his sponsor statement that “They are not second-class citizens, or ‘bargain employees.’ … They should earn what they are worth, with minimum wage as a baseline instead of a wage scale based upon their disability. Employers should not have the option of choosing employees based on a second-class, bargain, below minimum wage rate.” The final votes on the measure were 37-2 in the House and 17-3 in the Senate.
Campaign finance limits die near the finish line
Honestly, I wrote off the possibility of campaign finance limits returning this year as soon as the bill arrived in the Senate where Sen. Mike Shower said he had more important things to do this year than put any limits on the amount of money people can directly give to candidates. But, nevertheless, such limits looked like they would pass the Legislature after the Senate Finance Committee added it to another election-related bill and an attempt to strip them out on the Senate floor failed… but it ended up stumbling anyways. While it looked like it was one of those retribution votes, according to a report by the Anchorage Daily News it had more to do with the sluggish handling of an amendment that left the Senate without enough time to wrap up before midnight (though, they did have enough time for Senate President Micciche to give a special order about his mom). What that means is this year’s elections will be held without any limits on how much money people can directly give to any candidates running for state office. Rep. Calvin Schrage, the Anchorage independent who sponsored the initial campaign limits legislation, told the ADN that he’s keen on an initiative now.
Go deeper via the ADN: A last-minute deal to restore Alaska’s campaign finance limits fell through. Here’s how.
Bills that died ignoble deaths
Try as they might, far-right conservatives couldn’t find a way to sneak Senate Bill 140, the legislation that would ban transgender girls from participating in girls’ sports, past the finish line. Several attempts in the Senate were turned back by a pugnacious group of Democrats who weren’t going to let the legislation through without a fight. Sens. Bill Wielechowski, Jessie Kiehl and Tom Begich led the charge on the legislation with what I hear is a truly impressive stack of amendments that promised to consume a whole day of legislative business in the Senate, if not more. It’s a good lesson about picking the right fights in the Legislature but we shouldn’t forget just how close this thing got to actually passing. While the bill met its demise in the Senate over the weekend, there was a lot of chatter that the extreme-right Republicans in the House were eyeing it as a floor amendment to Senate Bill 80, which dealt with teaching mental health in schools. Senate Bill 140 was expected to be a non-starter in the House but that’s only because of the Democrats’ control of the right committees, and I was never so sure it’d be dead if it reached the floor. And if you need evidence of that, the House voted 21-18 (the Republicans plus Speaker Stutes and Rep. Patkotak) to ban any information about gender identity in the proposed mental health education. So, yes, Senate Bill 140 died but it took Senate Bill 80 with it.
Speaking of wacky floor amendment fights, the House spent several hours debating amendments on Senate Bill 136, legislation that would ban the government from seizing guns in the event of another emergency declaration, only to see it fail to reach a vote. Because it’s about firearms, it gave way to a fight over whether it should also include some safety measures like a public health campaign about the importance of locking up firearms (which failed). The House did, however, vote to require all public schools teach firearms safety classes to all grade levels seemingly every year… without any additional funding to come along with it. There was a point where Rep. Sarah Vance suggested that teaching kindergarteners that guns are tools that should be respected was totally acceptable and could be done with wooden guns… which was after she downplayed accidental firearm deaths of children because they only made up 5% of all accidental deaths. Yep. Anyways, after all the fight, the House couldn’t muster the supermajority needed to advance the bill from second reading to third reading in order to actually pass it. As Rep. Harriet Drummond, an Anchorage Democrat who was among the members voting against advancing it, wrote on twitter: “Killed SB136 dead with nary a shot fired!”
Have a nice weekend and go enjoy some sun, y’all!