A morning Senate Health and Social Services Committee (HSS) meeting scheduled to continue the public hearing on SB 72 — a proposal to protect LGBTQ Alaskans from workplace and housing discrimination — experienced a failure to launch Monday. Just two of the five standing committee members showed up, leaving them one body shy of a quorum and forcing Chair David Wilson (R-Wasilla) to cancel the hearing.
Senators Natasha von Imhof (R-Anchorage), Peter Micciche (R-Soldotna), and Cathy Giessel (R-Anchorage) were not in attendance.
For about three minutes, Wilson, joined by committee colleague Sen. Tom Begich (D-Anchorage) sat at the dais, with bill sponsor Sen. Berta Gardner (D-Anchorage) milling about the room. There were occasional shrugs before Wilson finally turned on his microphone and made the announcement.
“Thank you for everyone that came out today, and those online to testify,” Wilson offered. Unfortunately we do not have a quorum to conduct business of the Health and Social Services Committee today.”
He announced that the next HSS meeting would be Wednesday, but would focus on House Joint Resolution 14, offered by House Speaker Bryce Edgmon (D-Dillingham), urging the Federal Communications Commission to increase the Rural Health Care Budget.
SB 72 was first heard on March 31. The bill received a little over an hour of public testimony, overwhelmingly in support, with many left unable to speak due to time constraints.
A makeup date for the hearing on SB 72 was not scheduled, frustrating the dozens lined up at legislative offices dotting the state, where people had taken the time to show up to lend their voice in support of, or opposition to, the proposal.
In Anchorage, more than a dozen people showed up, including Felix Rivera.
“It was disappointing to see several state senators decide to ignore their constituents and the very real stories of discrimination facing LGBTQ Alaskans all over the state,” he told me Monday afternoon. Rivera is one of two openly gay candidates elected to the Anchorage Assembly last week. “Anchorage, Juneau, and other municipalities have taken leadership on this issue. I hope the legislature will pick up the baton. I’m pleased that Senators Wilson and Begich made this a priority and I hope Senators Micciche, Giessel, and von Imhof will take this issue seriously. Of course, a big thanks to Senator Gardner for her continued leadership on the issue.”
Begich also said he was disappointed. He said he’s been hearing from a lot of constituents on both sides of the issue — a fact corroborated by Jeanne Devon, the communications director for the Alaska Senate Democrats.
“I saw a printed stack of the emails that came in last week and it was more than an inch thick,” Devon told me.
“I’m shocked,” Begich added. “That’s what we’re elected for, is to show up.”
Von Imhof’s office said she was unable to attend due to a Senate Finance Committee meeting that began shortly after Wilson signed off in HSS.
“The Finance Committee takes priority over other committees. That is exactly what appears to have happened this afternoon,” von Imhof’s staffer, Konrad Jackson, clarified via email. “Senate Finance had scheduled a 1:30 pm meeting, last week. When this was noted, the Senator’s staff notified the Chair of HSS that she would not be able to attend.”
“All that being said, I can assure you that Senator von Imhof makes a concerted effort to attend all the meetings of all her committees,” he said.
Von Imhoff and Giessel were both present for the full hour of the first hearing.
Micciche also serves on Senate Finance.
“The budget is the number priority this year, so his attendance in the Finance Committee has taken precedence over other committees,” Micciche’s staffer, Lynne Smith told me. “When Finance resumes its normal schedule, his schedule will enable him to attend his other committees.”
Giessel does not serve on Senate Finance and had no scheduled meetings that conflicted with HSS. She did not respond to inquiry.
Shortly after the meeting’s cancellation, Gardner shared her thoughts on Facebook.
“I am so sorry. I know lots of folks put in a great deal of effort spreading the word and lining up testimony,” the Senate Minority Leader wrote. “This situation makes me wonder [if] some members of the committee just don’t want to hear it.”
Monday was day 84 of the 90-day session, though complicated negotiations surrounding the budget and deficit reductions plans all but guarantee the lights will remain on in the Capitol well after the statutory deadline. However, by Wilson’s own admission, it is doubtful SB 72 will receive further reaction.
“At this time it is unlikely that we will reschedule the bill as we have a few days left in the regular session,” he told me Monday night.
But the measure does not expire when the legislature gavels out. It will remain in committee and be eligible for deliberation again next session.
A House version of the bill, HB 184, is currently collecting dust in the State Affairs Committee.