Week Ahead: Senate set to pass crime law after ramping up penalties—and cost

The Senate Finance Committee during a hearing on March 27, 2019. (Photo by Alaska Senate Majority/Flickr)

The 121-day session will come to an end around midnight on Wednesday. Before now and then, legislators still have a ton of work left to do and no super clear path to completing it.

The Legislature still has the operating budget to negotiate, the dividend size to set, and a capital budget and a crime bill to pass.

The hardest deadline for legislators is the requirement to send a fully funded operating budget to the governor by the end of the 121st day of session, which is when new ethics legislation will kick in and cut off their per diem payments if they haven’t sent the budget.

The Legislature could extend session by an additional 10 days, call themselves into a special session or allow Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy to call a special session to take up the other issues.

Given the pressing deadlines, the weekend was surprisingly quiet. It featured a few committee hearings and fewer bills on the move. The operating budget conference committee met on Saturday to hash out some budgets, leaving the big-ticket items like the ferry unresolved, and the Senate Finance Committee put its touches on the crime bill.

House Bill 49 revised once more

The Senate Finance Committee rolled out a sweeping overhaul of House Bill 49 on Sunday, making some significant changes that drive the legislation’s price tag up to an estimated $40 million annually. A lot of the changes deal with sentencing, with some of the most significant being around drug sentencing.

According to the Anchorage Daily News’ account of the hearing, the committee’s changes would make a second-time drug possession a felony. The House version of the bill would have escalated it to a felony charge on the third-time while the status quo treats repeat drug possession as misdemeanors.

The Senate version that rolled out initially would have made first-time drug possession a felony, a “tool” that the administration said would be useful in order to threaten first-time drug offenders with serious charges in order to extract information about dealers.

Sen. Bill Wielechowski offered an amendment that would have set the felony at the second-time offense, which was accepted without objection.

“I just don’t want to put somebody in a hole they can never get out of,” said Sen. Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks, in accepting the amendment, according to the ADN.

It’s a change that won’t sit well with the hardcore Repeal SB 91 crowd, but it’s an effort to strike a compromise among the House, Senate and governor.

The thing about that, though, is the House already thought it had a compromise with the governor when it passed House Bill 49 last week.

On Friday, House leadership outlined their version of events with the bill. Reps. Chuck Kopp and Tammie Wilson, both Republicans, said the governor’s administration had been involved with the changes made to the legislation and had approved of it behind the scenes.

In hearings with the Senate Finance Committee, Deputy Attorney General John Skidmore pushed for changes to House Bill 49 that would make it tougher. He even issued a public statement saying the House got it wrong when it came to provisions related to marital rape.

In the House, it’s caused frustration.

“I’m really disappointed that it hasn’t been out there broadcasted,” Rep. Wilson said. “Every touch that we put on it was with the approval of the administration. We wanted to make sure that we were repealing and replacing SB 91 so that we could move forward with not just the public safety portion but treatment. My question to the administration right now is where is your part of the promise? … Nothing in this bill was a shock to the administration. Nothing we put in that bill was not approved before we did it.”

House Bill 49 is due on the Senate floor today. Once passed it will return to the House for concurrence. If the House concurs, the bill would head to the governor’s desk for signature. If the House rejects the changes and the Senate sticks by its changes, the bill would be headed for a conference committee to hash out the differences, a process that Rep. Kopp warned against with the remaining days of session.

Conference Committee

The operating budget conference committee met on Saturday to take up the budgets for the Department of Transportation, Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Fish and Game.

The big-ticket item of funding for the Alaska Marine Highway System was, unsurprisingly, left unresolved. The committee typically leaves these major items for the last meeting as other negotiations are ongoing.

The committee will soon be running up against the time limit, though.

The Legislature’s uniform rules require that the conference committee report on the budget sits on members’ desks for 24 hours before going to a vote so everyone can take a look at what’s supposed to be spent. It’d require the committee wrap everything up on Tuesday.

This rule, like all others, can be waived with the right number of votes.

To catch up on the conference committee’s actions so far, check out the Legislative Finance Division’s website. The committee is set to meet sometime Monday to take up the budgets on the Department of Administration, the Department of Education and Early Development, the Department of Health and Social Services, the Department of Natural Resources and the Judiciary.

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