Smorgasbord of new bills fills Alaska Legislature's plate

Sean CockerhamMcClatchy-Tribune News Service

Alaska legislators hope to require high school students to pass a test on "American Constitutionalism" in order to graduate, outlaw driving while talking on a cell phone, start medical and law schools at the University of Alaska and lower how much the state taxes oil companies.

Those are among 114 bills and resolutions released Friday in advance of this year's legislative session. The 90-day session starts Jan. 18 in Juneau.

Oil taxes are likely to dominate debate, and House Bill 17 aims to lower how much the companies are taxed. It's filed by Republican Reps. Mike Hawker of Anchorage, Mike Chenault of Nikiski, Craig Johnson of Anchorage and Kurt Olson of Kenai. Other bills to lower the oil tax are expected, but there are a lot more issues on the table than that.

Here are some of the proposals legislators have pre-filed going into the session:

Do you know your Constitution, kid?

House Bill 5 is called the "American Constitutionalism History Literacy Act." It's proposed by Wasilla Republican Rep. Wes Keller, a tea-party inspired lawmaker who was first appointed to his seat by former Gov. Sarah Palin.

Keller's bill would require the state to establish curriculum standards at all grade levels to teach and test the history of "American Constitutionalism." That involves the "philosophies and historical context" of documents such as the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation and the Federalist Papers.

It would become part of the exit exam that high school students need to pass to get a diploma. The subjects tested on the exam currently are reading, English and math.

Keller has also filed House Bill 8, which would try to challenge the federal government's authority to make Alaska do things the state deems unconstitutional.

The bill says the state doesn't have to follow federal regulations and presidential orders that conflict with state law and are unconstitutional and "not properly adopted in accordance with statutory authority." The state attorney general would review the federal actions for constitutionality and pass the findings on to the state Legislature's judiciary committees.

Shut up and drive

Republican Rep. Cathy Munoz of Juneau and Anchorage Democratic Reps. Mike Doogan and Max Gruenberg filed bills trying to outlaw driving while talking on a cell phone.

The bills offer exceptions for people using a hand-free devices such as headsets or speaker phones. Drivers could also still legally use their cell phones to make calls to the police and fire departments or other emergency services. Doogan's bill is HB 35. Munoz's is HB 22.

Gruenberg's HB 68 is different in that it wouldn't allow police to ticket drivers for talking on a cell phone unless they pulled them over for another reason.

Doogan tried to outlaw driving-while-talking last year, but his bill didn't make it.

Three months is not enough

Senate Bill 18 would increase the length of the annual legislative session.

Alaska voters in 2006 narrowly passed a ballot initiative reducing the length of the Legislature's annual regular session from 121 days to 90 days. The initiative was sponsored by three legislators who argued lawmakers wasted a lot of time in Juneau and shortening it would be more efficient.

But many legislators have complained that the tighter time frame doesn't allow enough time for public input on bills and swings the balance of power too much from the Legislature to the governor's office. Kodiak Republican Sen. Gary Stevens' SB 18 would increase the length of the session to 120 days, but only every other year. So one year would be 90-days, the next 120 days, and the cycle would continue.

Everybody else has one

Fairbanks Democratic Rep. Scott Kawasaki has introduced a bill to start law and medical schools at the University of Alaska. The medical school would be at the Fairbanks campus and the law school at the Anchorage campus.

Alaska is the only state without a law school and one of just six states without a medical school. But Kawasaki's HB 38 is already running into resistance from legislators who question the cost and the need for Alaska to have the schools.

Time to move on

There are two proposals to amend the Alaska Constitution to impose term limits on legislators.

State senators could serve no more than two terms of four years each. Representatives could only be in office for four terms of two years each. SJR 1 is by Wasilla Republican Sen. Linda Menard and HJR 6 is by Anchorage Republican Rep. Charisse Millett.

Fill it in. Write it in.

There are bills to clarify it's OK for voters to misspell the names of write-in candidates. This is a result of U.S. Senate candidate Joe Miller's failed attempt to get the courts to throw out misspelled ballots that were counted for Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

The courts said voter intent trumped spelling, but that the law should be clearer.

HB 70 by Fairbanks Republican Rep. Tammie Wilson and SB 31 by Democrats Joe Thomas of Fairbanks and Hollis French of Anchorage both borrow language from the Alaska Supreme Court's ruling against Miller. The bills say "the election board shall disregard any abbreviation, misspelling, or other minor variation in the form of the name of a candidate if the intention of the voter can be ascertained."

Choose Life and NRA license

Anchorage Republican Sen. Kevin Meyer has SB 16 to create license plates that with the phrase "choose life." The state would consult with Alaska Choose Life on the design and color of the plates, which motorists could then request for $30 extra.

Wasilla Republican Sens. Menard and Charlie Huggins introduced SB to create special request license plates commemorating the National Rifle Association.

Find Sean Cockerham online at or call him at 257-4344.