A slim 22-18 majority of the House agreed a conference committee is the proper place to review the massive overhaul of crime legislation passed by the Senate just hours earlier.
The House passed House Bill 49 last week with what they believed was support from Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy’s administration only for the administration to turn around to advocate for a much tougher bill in the Senate. The legislation that returned to the House came with 23 additional pages, stiffer penalties and a much larger price tag.
All 15 minority Republicans voted in favor of the bill, as well as caucus-less Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, and majority Reps. Andy Josephson and Chris Tuck. The vote was 22N-18Y.
Rep. Chuck Kopp, an Anchorage Republican in the bipartisan House Majority, opposed concurrence and said it’s all simply too much for the House to sign off without time to understand the bill.
“House Bill 49 left this body as a 73-page bill, it came back as a 96-page bill with 75 sections to this bill that have been changed or added,” he said. “Some of them, I think, present great solutions to obstacles that we face in public safety. Some of them may be problematic. Many of these measures originated in committees in the other body that were not vetted or discussed in this House.”
The cost of the Senate changes to the bill, according to the latest estimates, would be nearly $60 million a year once the bill is fully implemented. It would put more people behind bars longer, raising the average daily prison population from about 4,300 to 5,100 and require the state to renovate and reopen the recently shuttered Palmer Correctional Facility, which would be expected to quickly reach capacity.
Many senators balked at the price during the bill’s passage earlier in the morning, but many proponents said the feeling of safety is worth any price. Still, the bill passed the Senate on a 20-0 vote.
Kopp said the differences in the bill are best hashed out in a conference committee between the House and the Senate, which would allow the Legislature to hold hearings on the changes and potentially make changes to the bill to reach a compromise.
“I believe that many of us here need to learn about the changes that were made in the other bodies. Hear the rationale, hear it out. I believe we also need to learn why those changes were brought forward,” he said. “The conference committee process exists to allow members from both bodies to meet with one another, to learn from one another and to find common ground. I believe on this issue more than any other issue, we need that process to play out in a way that is fair and respects the integrity of both houses.”
It is, however, very nearly impossible for the Legislature to reach agreement on the legislation before the end of the 121-day session on Wednesday night. That’s what Kopp and others have warned as the Senate and administration worked together on a version of the bill that went much further than the House did in its version. Kopp’s mention of the “integrity of both houses” is likely a nod to the general feeling that the whole process was rigged to circumvent the House and force them to approve something they wouldn’t have approved in the normal process.
Still, the politics of the maneuvering aside, Kopp said many legislators have expressed regret over the original passage of Senate Bill 91 because they didn’t fully understand the legislation before approving it. Kopp said he doesn’t want to repeat the mistake with House Bill 49.
“Rubber stamping changes of this magnitude is irresponsible. There’s not a single member here that can go down and say they understand everything that happened in the other body,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we’re not going to accept much of that. It doesn’t mean that not good things were added in. What it does mean is we have a duty to our constituents to know what we’re voting on.”