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Alaska has an obligation to provide for families of those who die in the line of duty

  • Author: Paul Jenkins
  • Updated: June 25, 2016
  • Published May 7, 2016

That Alaska fails to provide health insurance to the grieving families of fallen firefighters, police, emergency workers and other state employees killed while working for us seems mind-boggling -- and horribly, morally wrong. Yet, it is true.

House Bill 66 would have fixed that. It was introduced early last year by Anchorage Republican Rep. Charisse Millett. Its impetus was the slayings of Trooper Gabe Rich and Sgt. Scott Johnson in Tanana on May 1, 2014.

The two went to the tiny village west of Fairbanks to arrest Arvin Kangas, accused of threatening a village public safety officer. Both officers were killed at close range by rifle fire. Kangas' son, Nathan, was accused of the slayings and went on trial in Fairbanks last week.

The troopers' deaths would immediately have cut off their families' state health care insurance coverage, Millett said in her sponsor statement. Only intercession by Govs. Sean Parnell and Bill Walker kept that from happening.

Her measure, Millett wrote, would have provided "spouses and children of state employees who have been killed in the line of duty with secure, stable health coverage within the PERS/TERS health plan."

The bill was sent to the House finance panel and the Labor and Commerce Committee, chaired by Kenai Republican Rep. Kurt Olson, on Jan. 21, 2015, after its first reading. Over time, it drew co-sponsors on both sides of the political aisle. But then, inexplicably, it languished for months. Millett finally withdrew the legislation. Neither Millett nor Olson returned my calls to ask why.

The measure is generating heat now because of an attempt to plug it into Senate Bill 91, a wide-ranging criminal justice reform measure offered by Republican Sen. John Coghill of North Pole, and others.

Coghill, the Senate majority leader, opposes amending his measure to include HB 66. In an email, he wrote, "SB 91 is a crime bill dealing with criminal law. HB 66 is a PERS bill dealing with retirement and death benefits." The difference is problematic.

The Legislative Affairs Agency's Division of Legal and Research Services advised Coghill the difference would violate the Alaska Constitution's single-subject rule and risk the entire package being found unconstitutional. That rule, the agency said, aims to stop logrolling -- stuffing a bill with "dissimilar or incongruous subjects" to win support.

Tacking on a severability clause stipulating if part of the law is stricken the rest remains would not help, the opinion by Doug Gardner, the Legislative Legal director, concluded. Alaska's Supreme Court, he warned, would frown at a law containing "a severability clause drafted to save a bill from a single subject violation."

Another problem for Coghill is confusion about definitions. "The sponsors have said HB 66 is for firefighters and peace officers when the definition of firefighters and peace officers in PERS statutes include corrections officers, corrections supervisors, and parole officers," he wrote.

Coghill pointed out other state workers might sue if not included. "According to Retirement & Benefits, Fish and Game employees and DOTPF maintenance employees have a higher risk of dying," he wrote.

His reluctance to sink SB 91 in a legal swamp, though legally sound, leaves the election-year Legislature with a thorny problem and time evaporating: What to do about insurance for bereaved families of fallen state workers?

The House last week slammed the door on shoehorning Millett's measure into the crime bill, ticking off unions, which never were enthusiastic about SB 91 without the HB 66 language. Walker's staff says he later may include the HB 66 language in emergency insurance legislation, perhaps in a special session.

None of this hubbub can be good for lawmakers. The Legislature already is sporting a black eye from the Anchorage Legislative Information Office imbroglio. Facing more than a $4 billion deficit, it wants to spend millions for new offices in Spenard. It continues to wrangle over the budget and oil tax credits. The public -- peek at the letters and comments in this news outlet -- is cranky.

I'm no political genius, but somebody should slap together a clean benefits bill and get the ball rolling. Now. It should be an exercise in how fast something can get done in Juneau.

There may be justifiable legal or fiscal reasons families of fallen state employees -- firefighters, police and emergency personnel specifically -- go without state health insurance coverage. Morality requires we provide it. If we expect our workers to run to gunfire for us, or charge into blazing buildings or ride in helicopters counting caribou or drive heavy equipment in the worst conditions, we unquestionably are obligated to care for their families if something goes tragically amiss.

If lawmakers dodge that responsibility, incumbents in Juneau could -- and perhaps should -- become an endangered species this fall.

Paul Jenkins is editor of the AnchorageDailyPlanet.com, a division of Porcaro Communications, which is providing assistance to APDEA to pass an insurance measure.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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