AKLEG Recap, Day 92: $500,000 contraceptive study bill faces skepticism in House

Senate President Pete Kelly on the final day of the regular 121-day session. (Photo by the Senate Majority press office)

The Legislature continued to hammer away at bills on Tuesday, the 92nd day legislators were in session, with much of the focus being on committee work. The Senate and House floors were both relatively quiet yesterday, save for a legislative birthday rap. Here’s what happened and what to look forward to.

Just 29 days remain in the 121-day session.

House hears Kelly’s contraceptive bill

Senate President Pete Kelly’s Senate Bill 198 faced tough questions from the House Health and Social Services Committee during its first hearing on Tuesday. The bill proposes a three-year, $500,000 study into the effectiveness of providing long-acting reversible contraceptives to women with substance abuse disorders. The goal of the bill is to tackle the problems–and costs–associated with unintended pregnancies by women who have a high likelihood of abusing drugs and alcohol during the pregnancy.

The bill passed the Senate last week on a 19-1 vote, but won’t find nearly as broad support in the House judging by the response of the representatives at Tuesday’s hearing.

Reps. Tiffany Zulkosky, Geran Tarr and Sam Kito peppered Kelly and the other invited testifiers with questions about the underpinnings of the bill, the ethical implications of studying a vulnerable population and the historic problems with interfering with a woman’s reproductive rights.

Zulkosky, D-Bethel, noted the House had just passed legislation, House Bill 25, that seeks to expand access to contraceptives. She noted that there were plenty of studies already showing that birth control is effective at reducing unwanted pregnancies.

Upon further questioning of the University of Alaska researcher who’d be overseeing the study, it became clear that the study wasn’t so much about the effectiveness of the birth control but instead a study to look at the ways to effectively get birth control to women who are at high risk of using drugs or alcohol during a pregnancy.

Tarr, D-Anchorage, took issue with some of the ways the study proposed to work with women who are already pregnant and suffering from substance abuse disorders. She worried that many of those women wouldn’t be in a great state of mind to consent to being part of the study.

“The process you described sounds horrible,” Tarr said, launching into a hypothetical of a woman being asked to sign onto a study when she’s also recovering from giving birth and detoxing from drugs. “I don’t think we should kid ourselves that in that scenario that a woman truly has a choice. That doesn’t represent real choice in my mind because her physical condition has limitations that prevent her from being fully able to make decisions in a way that are good for her.”

Zulkosky, D-Bethel, said she was also concerned about the study’s similarities to past efforts of the government to control the reproductive rights of minorities and other vulnerable populations, often through forced and non-consenting sterilization.

“This is one of the most difficult topics that has come before me in my 39-40 days in the Legislature. I think it’s really important to acknowledge the history of issues around full choice for reproductive rights regardless of an individual’s station in life so the state of Alaska does everything possible to avoid continuing that. I just really struggle with seeing how coming from a rural area as an Alaska Native woman with that background and understanding the challenges that have been in front of the Alaska Native community before, I just see there’s a lot of similarities between ostracizing a particular subsect of our community for the advancement of an institution,” she said. “It just feels deeply disturbing.”

Kito, D-Juneau, was concerned the study was being driven by political motivations with the end goal of being a reduction in cost to the state. He worried that such motivations would render the study ultimately useless in the future.

Taken together, the three representatives didn’t seem entirely opposed to the bill, but were very concerned that there weren’t adequate protections written into the bill to address their concerns. They also frequently noted that the bill’s text and the testimony of the researcher didn’t exactly align.

The bill still likely has momentum going forward thanks in part to the fact that the chair of the House Health and Social Services Committee, Rep. Ivy Spohnholz has signed on as a cross sponsor of the legislation. It’s likely that there’s a bit of a political calculus at play here: That despite the general concerns with the bill, it’s still a bill that’s aiming at widening access to birth control and one carried by a socially conservative Republican.

Spohnholz said public testimony for the legislation will be held on Thursday.

Bill rolling

The House Rules Committee met on Tuesday to insert a House Bill 86, which repeals the Alaska Commission on Postsecondary Education’s ability to repeal a person’s occupational license if they default on their student loans, into Senate Bill 4, which deals with barbers, braiders and hairdressers.  House Bill 86, by Rep. Matt Claman, passed the House last year and is currently in the Senate Rules Committee. A legal memo says the change likely doesn’t violate the single-subject rule.

Bills moving

A handful of bills advanced from committee on Tuesday. Here’s what they are and where they’re headed:

  • SB 185 advanced out of the House Finance Committee. The bill reworks some of the state’s laws to allow retired teachers to more easily return to teaching on a temporary basis without making a massive headache for the state’s retirement system. The bill has broad support from school districts and is now headed to the House Rules Committee.
  • HB 409 advanced out of the House Finance Committee. The bill updates the laws surrounding drivers licenses and state-issued identification cards to bring them in line with other parts of the law. The bill is sponsored by the House State Affairs Committee and is headed to the House Rules Committee.
  • SB 92 advanced out of the House Finance Committee. The bill sets up a system to deal with abandoned and derelict boats and other vessels in Alaska’s waters. It now heads to the House Rules Committee.
  • HB 307 advanced out of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The bill updates the military code of justice to better handle certain crimes like sex offenses. It now heads to the Senate Rules Committee.
  • HJR 33 advanced out of the Senate Special Committee on the Arctic. The joint resolution urges the feds to support development of the Arctic both through the establishment of a U.S. Coast Guard port in the Arctic and other military and economic activities.
  • HB 235 advanced out of the Senate State Affairs Committee. The bill would establish the North Star Medal as an award the governor can give to law enforcement, firefighters and other first responders. It now heads to the Senate Rules Committee.
  • Senate Bill 4 advanced out of the House Rules Committee. The bill, which deals with barbers, braiders and hairdressers, was rolled together with House Bill 86 as described above. It’s now headed to the floor.
  • House Bill 87 advanced out of the Senate State Affairs Committee. It repeals a tax credit created in 2000 for insurance companies donating to the Alaska Fire Standards Council, which has never been used. It’s now headed to the Senate Rules Committee.
  • Senate Bill 196 advanced out of the House State Affairs Committee. The bill is the Senate’s statutory spending limit and is headed now to the House Finance Committee.
  • Senate Bill 204 advanced out of the House State Affairs Committee. It allows chiropractors to be a valid authority for veterans hoping to get specialty license plates and disabled parking permits. The bill is now headed to the House Rules Committee.
  • House Bill 346 advanced out of the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee. It sets up a system for temporary dentist license to operate in communities without access to dentists. The bill is now headed to the Senate Finance Committee.
  • Senate Bill 160 advanced out of the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee. It deals with the regulation of broadband internet and is similar to a House bill working its way through the process. The bill is now headed to the Senate State Affairs Committee.

Grenn’s birthday

Rep. Adam Wool, D-Fairbanks, embarrassed Tuesday’s birthday boy Rep. Jason Grenn, I-Anchorage, with a thoroughly excellent floor speech and accompanying rap.

Is Senate Bill 63, the smoke-free workplace bill, scheduled for the floor?

No.

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