On Friday, Alaska legislators turned in the second round of pre-filed legislation, offering a preview of topics likely to be taken up when the 30th Alaska State Legislature convenes on Tuesday.
Pre-filed legislation often reflects topics considered among priorities of elected officials. Last week’s additions include proposals addressing alcohol and tobacco regulations, public safety, corporate tax loopholes, first responder benefits, game management, bill sponsorship, prescription medication, ethics, equal pay, agriculture, and education.
Much like the first round of pre-filed bills released last week, the docket is a lot slimmer than in recent years. This reflects the emphasis that will be put on dealing with the state’s budget deficit in the wake of low oil prices, reduced throughput in the pipeline, and lawmakers’ inability to do a whole lot about any of that last year.
The legislature is set to convene on Tuesday.
Access to investigational drugs
The lone bill to boast sponsorship in both legislative chambers is House Bill 43 and Senate Bill 19. The legislation is sponsored by a veteran lawmaker in the Senate Minority Caucus, Sen. Bill Wielechowski (D-Anchorage), and a freshman majority member in the House, Rep. Jason Grenn (I-Anchorage). It proposes to allow terminally ill patients access to investigational drugs and treatments and provides health care professionals protection for providing their use.
The effort is known nationally as the “Right to Try” movement, and seeks to allow “terminally ill Americans to try medicines that have passed Phase 1 of the [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] FDA approval process and remain in clinical trials but are not yet on pharmacy shelves. Right To Try expands access to potentially life-saving treatments years before patients would normally be able to access them.”
Right to Try legislation is aimed at allowing terminally ill patients access to medications and treatments that have not passed full FDA approval, a process which can take up to 15 years. The effort is backed by the Goldwater Institute, an Arizona-based, conservative think tank aimed at defending and strengthening “the freedom guaranteed to all Americans in the constitutions of the United States and all fifty states,” which provides model legislation. 33 states have passed Right to Try laws.
The measure was also introduced last session by Wielechowski with companion legislation, sponsored by representatives Scott Kawasaki (D-Fairbanks), Les Gara (D-Anchorage), and Max Gruenberg (D-Anchorage) in the House. Neither bill saw significant movement.
Alcohol and Tobacco
Sen. Gary Stevens (R-Kodiak) wants to beef up regulations on electronic smoking products being possessed and sold to minors. Senate Bill 15 would add electronic nicotine devices like e-cigs to the list of tobacco products prohibited to Alaskans under the age of 19. Violators would face a $300 fine and face forfeiture. Tobacco retailers also would need to display an 18-by-1.25 inches sign alongside electronic smoking products making clear the age restrictions.
Rep. Geran Tarr (D-Anchorage) has proposed a bill increasing the distance between alcohol sales and churches and schools. House Bill 34 would increase the buffer zone from 200 to 500 feet, but grandfathers in preexisting licensees.
Alaska Safer Streets and Communities Program
While Governor Bill Walker’s veto of Permanent Fund Dividend funds — which cut the amount of last year’s dividend checks from $2,052 to $1,022 — grabbed the bulk of the headlines, another reduction was equally costly: the reduction in revenue sharing. Revenue sharing is a collection of annual payments out of state coffers to local communities, a pay out of $60 million every year from 2008 to 2015.
Last year, that figure dropped to $38.2 million, meaning many communities had to search for new streams of revenue to pay for basic services. A good example would be in Girdwood, part of the Municipality of Anchorage, where revenue sharing reductions translated to a lack of funding for local police.
Last year, voters in the resort town south of Anchorage voted for a new local tax to broker a deal with neighboring town Whittier for police services.
Rep. Gara is proposing a new fund within the state’s general fund to assist with such costs. House Bill 35, coined the “Safer Alaska Streets and Communities Program” would allocate funds to compensate. The appropriation would fluctuate between $7.38 million or the amount equal to 90 percent of the yearly reduction in revenue sharing in the annual budget and would be dedicated to police, fire, and public safety services.
The proposal faces decent odds in the House majority, but is likely dead on arrival in the Senate, where the Republican majority is looking to cut an additional $750 million from the budget.
Rep. Grenn has proposed a revision to rules regarding members with a potential conflict of interest. Current policy regarding conflicts is rather laughable: if a lawmaker is voting on a measure in which he or she has a financial stake, they are required to declare a potential conflict of interest and ask to be excused from the vote. Any member can then object to that declaration, at which point the conflict is poofed away, and the member is required to vote.
House Bill 44 would add a requirement that bars legislators from acting on a bill — even in committee — if it pertains to a sector in which the lawmaker (or a family member) is employed and has received more than $10,000 in income from over the past year.
However, it does not address such a lawmaker’s colleagues’ ability to poof away the conflict. The poofing away is really the crux of the problem.
Grenn’s proposal will very likely go poof. And that is too bad, because it’s a topic worthy of addressing, which won’t be.
Alaska is not good at local food production. The state represents just 0.2 percent of national agricultural production and 81 percent of that goes to feeding livestock. Conversely, we spend $2 billion annually to import food.
As we reported last week, Anchorage is working to refine zoning laws to incentivize more local food production. House Bill 46, authored by Rep. Tarr, looks to bolster those efforts at the state level. The proposal would change the Alaska Product Preference statutes to allow more price flexibility by state agencies when purchasing Alaska grown products.
Current law allows homegrown agricultural products, including dairy, to be purchased by the state so long as the cost is within seven percent of a comparable product imported from the Lower 48. HB46 would increase that ceiling to 15 percent.
“When our state agencies purchase from Alaska growers, we are supporting small businesses all over the state,” Tarr said in a press release announcing the bill. “This helps strengthen and diversify our economy, increase our food security, and provide a higher quality, healthier product to the consumer.”
HB46 is much needed infrastructure, but infrastructure requires a down payment. Even if the measure clears the House, it will face an uphill battle in the Senate.
Civil forfeiture reform
Rep. Tammie Wilson (R-North Pole) has reintroduced a bill to restructure Alaska’s property forfeiture laws, including civil forfeiture — an area in dire need of reform.
Civil forfeiture, also the subject of a great segment on Jon Oliver’s HBO show, means the ability of law enforcement to seize property they assert is linked to criminal activity. However, it does not require a conviction and the burden of disproving criminal activity related to forfeited property is placed heavily on the private citizen.
Not only does the government merely need to show probable cause to forfeit property, but an innocent owner bears the burden of trying to reclaim his property and prove his innocence. Once a property owner is given notice that his property has been seized, he has 30 days to respond. If he fails to claim the property within that time frame, it is automatically forfeited. These problems are compounded by the fact that law enforcement in Alaska keeps 100 percent of the revenues generated by civil forfeitures, creating a perverse incentive to seize as much property as possible. Moreover, there is no legal requirement that Alaska authorities collect or report data on their forfeitures.
Wilson’s House Bill 42 would redefine criminal and civil forfeitures to require that a person’s property is “subject to forfeiture to the state if the person is arrested for an offense…; [if the] person is convicted of the offense; and [if the] state establishes by clear and convincing evidence that the property is subject to forfeiture[.]”
The bill passed the House unanimously last year, but died in Senate Finance.
Paying tribute to two lions of the U.S. Senate
In hyperpartisan political times, it’s always nice to point out that cooperation that spans both aisles is, and has been, possible. Alaskans don’t need to look far back to recall an incredible friendship between Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii).
“We call each other brothers,” Inouye told his senate colleagues in a 2007 speech, celebrating the moment Stevens became the longest-serving GOP senator.
“The aisle between the two sides is now a canyon,” Stevens later would reply. “And people on either side accuse me and Dan Inouye of being freaks because we’re friends.”
Senator Mia Costello (R-Anchorage) has filed Senate Bill 17, which would create an exchange program for political science students at the University of Alaska and the University of Hawaii to commemorate the bipartisan friendship between the two senate icons.
The timing couldn’t be better.