Home Politics John Aronno: On Politics SB72: Once More, With Feeling

SB72: Once More, With Feeling

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It took 11 years for the Alaska State Legislature to hear a bill aimed at providing legal protections for LGBT citizens in the 49th state. Over a decade. And it wasn’t for lack of trying.

In 2002, Fairbanks Senator Georgianna Lincoln, who was a member of both the Republican and Democratic parties during her 14-year-tenure in the House and Senate, introduced Senate Bill 163. SB163 was hate crimes legislation aimed at enhanced adjudication for acts and crimes perpetrated specifically with animus against minority groups. And in the history of the legislature, as best my research reflects, it was the first time a bill included the term “sexual orientation.”

Democratic Senators Lyman Hoffman, Kim Elton, Bettye Davis, and Johnny Ellis signed on as cosponsors.

Lincoln was (and is) a prolific giant in civil rights. The first Alaska Native woman elected in Alaska, she was instrumental in the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), and dedicated her public service to bringing health and education programs to her district. Former Representative Albert Kookesh once recalled a moment when she took to the Senate floor and told her colleagues, “I need your help to eradicate racism in Alaska.”

Her political prominence and stature earned SB163 a quick referral to the State Affairs and Judiciary committees, where it was left to die without a hearing.

The following year, Lincoln introduced the measure again. It received consideration by two committees, starting in Senate State Affairs, where it passed out of committee unanimously, and then Judiciary. That’s where it hit a snag.

Sen. Ralph Seekins (R-Fairbanks) said that “sexual orientation” was “the one area that remained unresolved among the people he worked with to get support for the bill.”

He supported a substitute version which omitted the classification.

Ellis, who came out shortly after retiring last year, asked why crimes based on sexual orientation should not be addressed. Sen. Scott Ogan (R-Palmer), according to the journal,

said he has heard privately from pastors that they are worried that if they quote at a church service certain passages of the Bible that deal with sexual orientation, they could be charged with some sort of crime.

“Sexual orientation” was stripped from the bill, which ultimately stalled out in Senate Finance.

The following year, Senator Davis reintroduced the measure in the Senate while Representatives Woodie Salmon (D-Fort Yukon) and Max Gruenberg (D-Anchorage) filed legislation in the House in 2006. The language was reinserted.

It never received a hearing.

Davis defiantly pursued it in 2007 and was promptly ignored, yet again. Rep. Beth Kerttula picked up the baton in 2011, introducing the first antidiscrimination bill, HB165. Kerttula, too, had her bill shelved.

The next session, Rep. Andy Josephson introduced an identical bill in HB139, flanked by Kerttula and representatives Gruenberg, Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins (D-Sitka), Cathy Muñoz (R-Juneau), Sam Kito III (D-Juneau), Les Gara (D-Anchorage), Ben Nageak (D-Barrow), and Lindsey Holmes (R-Anchorage).

That same year, in the same legislative body, the Republican-led House Majority held a press conference to outline their “guiding principles.” The Juneau Empire‘s Mark Miller was present and cited a Public Policy Polling study which found that 69 percent of Alaskan voters supported civil unions for same-sex couples. He asked if the caucus supported the idea.

They responded with a robust round of laughter and a visibly rattled then-House Majority Leader Lance Pruitt (R-Anchorage) stumbling his way through a response that essentially ended with, “it hadn’t come up.”

The following day, after the YouTube video went viral, Pruitt apologized.

That apology has since been removed.

This was the same session where Rep. Doug Isaacson (R-North Pole) carried a bill to exempt military spouses from being required to obtain an in-state drivers license and, despite concerns of constitutionality for leaving out same-sex spouses (this was after the Defense of Marriage Act had been repealed), repeatedly shot down proposed amendments aimed at inclusivity in multiple committees and on the floors of the Senate and the House.

“A spouse is a spouse,” Isaacson maintained.

But Alaska did make history that year.

HB139 got a hearing. The first hearing on a statewide antidiscrimination bill. In state history. It was a big deal.

It lasted 12 minutes.

“There’s been tremendous cultural changes going on around the world and certainly here in the United States,” House State Affairs Committee Chair Bob Lynn (R-Anchorage) said. “And it’s, frankly, it’s a sign of the times that we’re considering legislation such as this.”

However, as I wrote at the time,

Lynn apologetically stated that time constraints would not allow the hearing to include public testimony, despite what he described as “a number of people” in queue to speak. Lawmakers were needed elsewhere.

That was the last of the discussion about the bill.

In 2015, a record three antidiscrimination bills were introduced. HB42, by Muñoz, HB19 by Josephson, and SB20 by Sen. Berta Gardner (D-Anchorage). Despite over 18 percent of the legislature adding their names as cosponsors, none received a single hearing.

Which brings us to today, and — more importantly — Friday.

On March 1, Sen. Gardner introduced SB72: “An Act adding to the powers and duties of the State Commission for Human Rights; and relating to and prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity or expression.”

I could rattle off the same statistics I have been screaming about over the past decade.

I could explain how, yes, marriage equality is now the law of the land, but that reality thrusts couples into the public without any legal protections at the state level, meaning you could get married to your partner, the next day get fired from your job, only to come home and be evicted from your home, without any legal recourse unless you happen to live somewhere with local ordinances protecting you.

I could note how the recent inclination of employers to steer away from civil unions, requiring marriage for benefits, decreases the discretion to which same-sex couples could, in the past, defer.

I could regurgitate the reality in which anti-gay activists, who wander the halls in Juneau as registered lobbyists, are still actively trying to uphold the right to discriminate, even though their arguments can debunked in one click or less.

I could remind you of the exhaustive work my colleague and friend, Melissa S. Green, has dedicated herself to, finding that there remains widespread discrimination in Alaska’s largest city.

I could remind you of the spattering of eight states have laws on the books outlawing education perceived as to be advocating for the LGBTQ community, known as “No Pro Homo” laws, or that the administration of President Donald Trump intends to discount LGBTQ citizens from the 2020 census.

And I could mention that how, in a depressed economy, such as the one we face, the worst possible thing we could do is encourage the belief among Alaskans that they are not welcome here — that they’re not safe. The economic perils of such policies, though embraced by many lawmakers over the years, have been thoroughly documented.

But mainly, I want you to know that SB72 has a hearing.

On Friday, March 31, the Senate Health and Social Services Committee will hear, for just the second time, a bill to prohibit at the state level discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression. The committee is chaired by freshman Senator David Wilson (R-Wasilla).

There will only be 17 days left in the session, and it won’t go anywhere. It likely does not have the votes to move out of committee, and hardly the time to work its way through the committee process this year.

But, as I have said before, that’s not the point.

The point is, we need this bill to become law. To make that happen, it needs more hearings. It needs elected officials to hear why. Some, I can personally assure you, actually listen.

When this session ends, SB72 does not go away. The 30th Alaska Legislative Session has a whole 2018 to contend with. And this needs to be a part of the docket.

I have lost friends to this fight. Most moved away. One took her own life. I’m sick of writing this damned article every year; most years, multiple times. I’m sick of a legislature who denies their own constituents’ most basic needs and refuses to stand up for a community, as Georgianna Lincoln phrased it, “handicapped by the system they found themselves in.”

John Aronno is a co-founder, managing editor, and award winning political writer at Alaska Commons. Aronno has had his work featured in the Huffington Post, the Anchorage Press, the Alaska Dispatch, and the Rachel Maddow Show, and is listed among the state’s top reporters on the Washington Post’s “The Fix.” He writes the weekly column “On Politics” for Alaska Commons. Aronno lives in Anchorage, Alaska with his wife, Heather Aronno, and a lot of pets.

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