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Alaska legislators introduce some 50 bills next session, few of them spendy

Pat Forgey

JUNEAU -- Some legislative Democrats have been outspoken in their criticism of Gov. Sean Parnell's decision to not accept the Affordable Care Act's Medicaid expansion, but their agenda for this legislative session is much less ambitious.

"The big ticket items, almost for sure, won't pass this session," said Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, House Democratic Leader.

A common theme among the 50-plus bills introduced Friday: lawmakers trying to accomplish their agendas with as little impact to the state treasury as possible. That meant scaled-back expectations in some cases. In other cases, it meant using government power to regulate, rather than spend, to work toward their goals.

One of the bills with new spending is House Bill 229, which would expand eligibility for Denali KidCare, the health care program for children and pregnant women. But even there, it is a sign of reduced expectations.

Sponsor Kerttula called the bill a "no-brainer" but said she'd prefer the Affordable Care Act's bigger and largely federally funded expansion of Medicaid in Alaska. "We should have Medicaid expansion instead of sending our money off to other states," she said.

But following last fall's surprise announcement of revenue declines and a state budget proposal that calls for a $2 billion deficit next year, that didn't seem realistic.

Denali KidCare expansion

The Denali KidCare expansion, also sponsored by Reps. Harriet Drummond and Geran Tarr, both Anchorage Democrats, does not yet have a "fiscal note," an official cost estimate. But judging from the last time such an expansion attempt was made, it appears likely to cost the state about $200,000 a year and provide coverage for about 1,500 Alaskans with incomes between 175 percent and 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

Other bills introduced by the trio as part of a package of bills on women's health, safety and economic opportunity would cost even less, attempting to accomplish their goals without big costs to the state by using regulations and other government actions.

That includes House Bill 228, which would require employers to provide mothers with safe and sanitary places to breastfeed, House Bill 227 to require that employees earn paid sick leave and House Bill 226 to re-establish the Commission on the Status of Women.

Kerttula said it appears legislators have scaled back expectations for this session.

"I think the reality is you won't see anything with a big fiscal note passing," she said.

Elect Alaska's attorney general?

Elsewhere in the legislature, Rep. Pete Higgins, R-Fairbanks, introduced House Bill 209 to regulate unmanned aerial vehicles and bar the use of evidence collected by drones without a search warrant. Rep. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, wants to require labeling of food with genetic engineering in House Bill 219.

Sen. Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, introduced Senate Bill 103 to protect homeowners buying home security systems from automatic renewal provisions that some consider abusive or fraudulent.

Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, is looking at future savings in prison construction with House Bill 64, which would include costs but also would use new techniques such as stepped up parole and probation monitoring in an effort to reduce prison populations. That's something that other states have found that small investments have brought big savings.

And Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, wants to amend the Alaska Constitution to make the attorney general an elected rather than appointed official.

A few bills would go even further and seek to reduce some spending.

House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, and several members of his Republican-led majority caucus have introduced House Bill 243, rejecting the pay raises proposed by the State Officers Compensation Commission for the governor, lieutenant governor and heads of departments.

That joins House Bill 237 by Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, and Kawasaki, which would do the same thing.

Education funding: State or local?

The bill with the biggest cost is likely Rep. Tammie Wilson's House Bill 245, which would repeal the requirement that local communities contribute funding to local schools. Such local funding is something to which some cities and boroughs, including the Fairbanks North Star Borough and Ketchikan Gateway Borough, have objected, leading to Wilson's bill.

She said that's the state's responsibility under the Alaska Constitution. "Nobody's made the case to me that the state can't afford to do it, it's just chosen to put it on the municipalities versus doing it themselves as the Constitution mandates them to do," Wilson said.

Wilson said one of the reasons communities have to go to the Legislature for capital projects is that their tax revenues are going to their required school local contributions.

State data shows about $500 million of $2.5 billion in school costs come from local sources. Wilson said a recent report from the House Sustainable Education Task Force that suggested to the legislators that local communities contribute more to reduce state costs was aimed at reducing the amount the state paid to reimburse local districts for school construction bonds.

Contact Pat Forgey at pat(at)alaskadispatch.com.