This Monday marked the pre-file deadline for legislation to be taken up (or totally ignored) during Alaska’s 28th legislative session. Nearly sixty bills and resolutions were put online for public consumption. The slate of pre-filed bills gives us a sneak peak at what the ninety day session might look like. More will be released next week. Here are a few potential highlights worth a look:
House Bill 13: “An Act establishing a top two nonpartisan blanket primary election system for elective state executive and state and national legislative offices….”
Longtime Democratic State House Representative Max Gruenberg’s HB13 is an election reform package that, among many other things, changes the way we select candidates in the primary to a preferential voting system. This change could effect the two names that end up on the general election ballot.
To explain, let’s use the shall-we-say festive 2010 primary election as an example. There were a total of four candidates for the US Senate on the Democratic ballot; three Democrats and one Libertarian. The Republican ballot had two GOP candidates. Voters filled in a box, and on primary night, we ended up with Joe Miller and Scott McAdams as the two candidates that would be on the general election ballot representing their respective parties.
Most of you reading have probably noticed that someone very relevant to the story is missing from the equation. But Lisa Murkowski lost her primary and was forced to run as a write-in. Under the Gruenberg Plan (yes, I’ve named it), she wouldn’t have. On primary ballots, as dictated by HB13, the top two vote-getters, total, would be recognized as the nominees preferred by the voters (irrespective of parties). So, in the case of 2010, Joe Miller pulled off the upset with 55,878 votes. Lisa Murkowski lost by six votes. Scott McAdams only received 18,000 votes. It makes sense in a winner-take-all system to arrive at McAdams and Miller as representatives of their political parties. But the Gruenberg plan values the will of the entire body politic over partisan politics.
Let’s be real: Democrats are likely to continue the trend of getting hosed in statewide elections. But it could also mean more political competition in solid red or blue districts, where opposing candidates would be closer, ideologically, to that of their constituents, regardless of party. You might end up with more moderates winning out, and you might get more participation overall – which should be the ultimate goal.
And it would mean that if the Democratic Party wished to compete in, say, Mat-Su districts, or if Republicans wished to compete in Downtown Anchorage, they’d have to work for it; develop a field of competitive candidates who have actually been introduced to a video camera before they appear on Running.
The bill needs work in some areas – in one part, it calls for public notices at polling places stating: “A candidate’s stated [political party] preference does not imply that the candidate is nominated or endorsed by the party or group or that the party party or group approves of or associates with that candidate.” I think a lot of our problems are caused by convenient disassociation. But if a candidate wants to claim political affiliation, he or she should own it, for good and bad. If a party disapproves of a candidate running under its banner, it should publicly disavow him or her.
In all, the election reform bill is a large bag of goodies that both sides will have loud objections too, mostly because it gives a pretty large, populist boost to the power held by whichever party has the most registered voters at the time, and allows for the possibility of third party competition. Too label it a long shot would be more than generous. But I think it’s an idea that is way overdue and it’s nice to see someone with the political courage to put it forward.
House Bill 17: “An Act providing for a reduction of the principal of postsecondary education loans for residents.”
HB17 is built on the model of our current system of instate versus out of state tuition rates at the Universities of Alaska. Instate tuition rates are noticeably lower because we want to encourage our youth to achieve a higher education. This bill, sponsored by seven House Democrats, applied the same logic to the back end: after students attain a degree, we would like them to stay here. They are added value to the state. Thus, the bill grants a yearly 2.5 percent reduction in student loan to students who have been in state for at least a year prior, stay in state, keep up on their student loan payments, and don’t try to play the Van Wilder card and stay in school forever.
House Bill 45: “An Act relating to harassment, intimidation, or bullying by students attending a public school in the state.”
Representatives Mia Costello (R-Anchorage) and Lynne Gattis (R-Wasilla) aim to correct a technological loophole in anti-bullying laws brought about by the advent of social media. The new bill would add “electronic” acts with the intent of “threatening, intimidating, harassing, or frightening the student” to the requirements in what school personnel have a duty to report. It’s a needed fix.
House Bill 21: “An Act relating to the length of a school week”.
HB21 would reduce the school week from five days to four, expanding the school day for students.
Per the bill’s sponsor, North Pole Republican Tammie Wilson:
I was approached by a school district that submitted a plan to the State Department of Education and it was denied by the Commissioner. The parents and the school board wanted an opportunity to show this concept could work for their children. This concept has been successfully implemented in many communities in other parts of our country.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, twenty-one states are currently testing out similar programs, with efforts dating back to the 1930s. The switch can make sense in smaller, rural areas, but there is no conclusive data determining whether or not the four day schedule offers any educational benefits. Children spend less time in class, and opponents cite regression in comprehension given the extra day off, as well as the added stress on students for longer days. Additionally, working parents often have to pay for additional child care. Nevertheless, it’s a creative idea, and it’s voluntary.
It’s not a cost saving measure if it unduly taxes our children’s education, but hopefully this starts a dialog about actual changes that will produce beneficial results. And Representative Wilson says that only one district would be ruled eligible for the pilot program.
Senate Bill 6: “An Act providing funding for school lunch and breakfast”.
Previously known as SB3, SB6 enters its third year before the legislature. Sponsored by Anchorage Democrat Bill Wielechowski, it seeks to “supplement the cost of lunch and breakfast provided to each student who is eligible for a free or reduced price lunch” under federal statutes. The bill passed the Senate last year without opposition, but stalled out in the House Finance Committee under objection by its chair, Bill Stoltze (R-Chugiak). A hunger strike and many protests later – of which members of Alaska Commons both participated in and supported – a compromise was reached where Stoltze would appropriate a one time, $3 million state run program. But a year later, hungry children will be back at square one unless the legislature ponies up.
House Bill 7: “An Act relating to the practice of naturopathy”. Naturopathy is what it sounds like: a reliance on natural remedies as an alternative treatment of diseases.
HB7, sponsored by Kenai Republican Kurt Olson, would provide an exception to current state restrictions, allowing naturopathic practitioners to “give, prescribe, or recommend” “a device or homeopathic remedy,” including herbal remedies, defined as a substance “derived from or a concentrate or extract of a plant, tree, root, moss, or fungus”. The legislation could be taken as a way to cut through some of the ambiguity and legal gray area of our medical marijuana laws, and could improve patients’ access to medical marijuana cards.