Gov. Bill Walker announced Friday that he would be adding Senate Bill 54 to the call when he summons the Legislature back to Juneau for a fourth special session this year on Oct. 23. In addition to legislation for the purpose of raising revenue, he plans for us to take up this legislation aimed at correcting some of the issues that came with the passage of Senate Bill 91, the rewrite of the criminal law.
While these are both important issues to be taken up, combining them in a 30-day special session is concerning. The people of Alaska would be better served if Senate Bill 54 was left as the sole focus of the special session, given the Senate has repeatedly expressed clear objection to passing any new taxes on the people of Alaska to pay for government.
It is clear to Alaskans that our lives are being affected every day by increased crime statewide. Headlines across the state reflect this.
The governor hit the nail on the head when he said that this issue is too important to put off until January, when the Legislature is back in Juneau for the regular session. Given his desire to find revenue to fund government, SB 54 may not get the full attention that it deserves.
After the passage of SB 91 we have seen crime increase across the state, as the recently released 2016 state crime report indicates. Getting criminal justice reform right is of the utmost importance. Accomplishing this will take some time; time is one thing the House has not had with the bill. The Senate spent the better part of the 90-day regular session working to pass this bill.
Time is not merely having possession of the bill. Instead, it is time spent properly vetting legislation in committee, which hasn't happened in the House.
The House received the bill April 8, and Speaker Bryce Edgmon assigned it to three committees, State Affairs, Judiciary, and Finance. This many committee referrals signals the depth at which a bill should be vetted. Interestingly, his House majority didn't have a single hearing during the following 40-plus days of the extended regular, and two 30-day special sessions, after it was read across the floor.
It doesn't appear the House Majority wanted to address the increased criminal activity that is affecting Alaskans every day.
I should say the House State Affairs Committee did schedule a hearing for the bill on May 4, but canceled the hearing and in its place heard a bill that would establish a climate change commission, HB 173. That seems to indicate where the House majority's priorities lie.
Another reason the special session should focus on SB 54 alone are the elements of the bill. It will make significant changes to how we address violations of conditions of release, sex trafficking, felony and misdemeanor sentencing, the definition of sex offenses, sex offender probation, DUI sentencing provisions, compensation awards for victims of violent crimes, and change the duties of the Department of Health and Social Services.
The depth of these changes deserves to be vetted properly, which in my opinion demand a public process, data and statistical review, and expert testimony. These kinds of changes are not to be rushed. Legislators cannot do this properly during a 30-day special session if we are also focused on the implementation of taxes to raise revenue to pay for government.
About paying for government, Senate Bill 54 came from the Senate with five fiscal notes, which indicate there will be an indeterminate increase in government spending. I am not comfortable with "indeterminate," knowing the costs of legislation is paramount before voting on it. I think Alaskans expect the same.
It will not be productive to tackle this legislation while under pressure from the governor to implement a revenue-generating tax.
This is a serious bill; criminal justice reform is important, and we need to get it right this time. Compromising the time to properly vet all aspects of this legislation, we will inevitably have to fix SB 54, much in the same manner we are looking to SB 54 to fix SB 91.
Anything worth doing is worth doing right. And we must get SB 54 right for the safety of all Alaskans while we are in Juneau for the 30-day special session.
Rep. George Rauscher represents District 9 in the Alaska House of Representatives, serving Sutton, Palmer-Fishhook, Glennallen, Delta Junction, Valdez, and Whittier.
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