House passes VPSO reform bill but not before ugly comments about taxing villages

The Alaska Capitol Building.

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The House on Thursday passed Senate Bill 81 by Sen. Donny Olson, legislation that implements several reform measures aimed at improving the state’s Village Public Safety Officer program. It passed with near-unanimous support but not before a particularly ugly debate about forcing villages in unorganized parts of the state that have no tax base to pay for their public safety.

The legislation brings mandatory background checks for applicants to the rural public safety program, establishes a clearer process for VPSOs to start carrying firearms and sets up new avenues for tribal organizations to provide assistance to officers whether it’s financial, housing or transportation (services many tribal organizations are already providing in some sort). It’s the product of a working group aimed at improving the program, which has faced significant budgetary issues that have made recruitment and retention difficult.

For those supportive of the program, solving these issues is a matter of fairness and equity in Alaska particularly as state resources have continued to pour into policing in Mat-Su while a significant fraction of communities have no policing of any sort.

“There is undoubtedly a need to address the crisis in public safety infrastructure and service across rural Alaska. Reporting from 2019 indicated that 1 in 3 Alaska communities do not have any form of local law enforcement,” said Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel, referencing work done by the Anchorage Daily News/ProPublica about public safety disparities in Alaska. “Quite frankly this compounds the challenges and contributes to the disproportionality of interpersonal violence we see occurring across the state.”

While the underlying legislation had broad support, it didn’t stop several Republicans from complaining that rural Alaska is somehow getting preferential treatment with the program. Rep. George Rauscher, R-Sutton, introduced a measure that would force the tribal organizations and villages to directly fund the VPSO program. It was a particularly rich point coming from the a legislator from the Mat-Su, whose refusal to take on policing powers (and therefore the responsibility to fund them) has seen a vast amount of the state trooper resources focused there.

Rauscher complained that because it would cost the borough to set up its own policing, it should also cost villages to have VPSOs.

“The state’s paying for this one and I don’t understand that,” he said.

It revealed a great deal of ignorance about the VPSO program and rural Alaska. Several other Republicans piled on with some complaining that their communities have stationed Alaska State Troopers but that they don’t also get village public safety officers. Others, like Rep. Laddie Shaw complained that the villages and tribal organizations have “never ponied up to support to the level that they should be.”

Backers of the VPSO program—Republicans, Democrats and Independents—all noted the program is a critical service in rural Alaska when troopers may be days away from responding. They also said that Rauscher’s consternation over the apparent lack of buy-in overlooked the considerable resources and efforts that tribal organizations put into hiring and supporting village public safety officers. Several also noted that the Alaska Constitution specifically says the Alaska Legislature serves as the assembly for the unorganized areas of the state—which covers many villages—and is responsible for ensuring their public safety. They also noted that their unorganized status also made taxing them an unrealistic expectation.

“I just want to remind the body that we serve as the borough assembly for the unorganized areas of the state and that includes most of rural Alaska,” said Rep. Neal Foster, D-Nome. “One of the basic tenets of government is we shall provide for public safety and if we serve as the borough assembly for rural Alaska, it is our duty to provide that public safety. … Almost all villages do not have a trooper stationed in their village. There are no roads that go to these villages, and you can get into a situation where you might have bad weather and it might be days before a trooper can get out to a village.”

Perhaps, though, the grimmest argument came from Nikiski Republican Rep. Ben Carpenter who argued the VPSO program is a failure as evidenced by the continued high rates of crime and sexual violence in some communities. He argued the best way to combat sexual violence against Alaska Native women would be to tax villages.

“Whatever we are doing is not working. I can’t help but think that if we want to have better outcomes in our villages, we have to take personal responsibility. How do we enable personal responsibility in our villages? The same way we would enable personal responsibility anywhere else,” he said. “You have to fight for it, you have to pay for it you have to have a dog in the fight.”

Yep.

Even Carpenter seemed to know how bad it sounded as he cut himself off, but it’s important to note that this attitude isn’t all that far off from the arguments that the best thing for rural Alaska is resource development as has been echoed by many Republicans. The amendment was ultimately pulled by Rauscher, who noted he had only intended to make a stink about the $107,300 the bill is projected to incur (for the background checks and psyche evaluations for firearms in the event that any VPSOs ever start carrying firearms) and not the roughly $13 million that funds the program.

“I hope everyone understands I’m not trying to kill the program,” he said, noting that he was just hoping to start a conversation.

Ugly attitudes aside, the legislation passed with broad support on a 34-2 vote.

Oh, and it was Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day.

Over in the Senate, SB 81’s sponsor Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, spoke about the need for the state to support Alaska Native communities.

“We try very hard to take care of our own, but we need support from our fellow Alaskans,” he said. “We need funding to support communities so that they can be trained and be prepared to make sure the searches are safe as they look for our loved ones. We also need public safety to prioritize our calls to help when we have someone who’s missing. We need to build stronger support systems for the generations that follow us.”

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