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Ballot selfies, GMO fish ban: Besides the budget, what's on agenda for Alaska lawmakers?

  • Author: Nathaniel Herz
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published January 9, 2017

Alaska lawmakers will push new bills in the upcoming legislative session that roam far afield from what they say is their most pressing business: the state's massive budget crisis.

Rather, the new bills range from banning genetically modified fish sales to modernizing election law so voters can legally post "ballot selfies" to Facebook.

With the 2017 session beginning next week, Monday brought the first release of "pre-filed legislation" — bills that lawmakers unveil before the official start to their work.

Few of the pre-filed bills ultimately pass — about 20 percent were signed into law during the last legislative session — but the topics can provide insight into legislators' agendas over the next two years, the official lifespan of the 30th Legislature.

Only a handful of measures took direct aim at Alaska's massive budget problem.

George Rauscher, a newly elected Republican representative from Mat-Su, is proposing a constitutional amendment to place a $4 billion spending cap on the state operating budget. Sen. Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks, has tweaked and revived his 2015 proposal to institute a graduated "employment tax" that increases with income, with the proceeds directed toward education. The measure looks a lot like an income tax.

Two Wasilla Republicans, Rep.-elect David Eastman and Sen. Mike Dunleavy, would actually increase the state's deficit with legislation to give Alaskans an extra 2016 Permanent Fund dividend. The second oil-wealth payment would make up for a reduction that came when Gov. Bill Walker vetoed the money for about half of this year's dividends, citing the state's budget crisis.

Anchorage Democratic Sen. Bill Wielechowski, like he did in 2015, is proposing an amendment to enshrine the dividend in the Alaska Constitution. The constitution currently protects the principal of the fund from legislative spending, but not the dividend or earnings.

Other bills ranged far and wide. Sitka Democratic Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins wants to defang an unenforced state law that bans people from displaying their ballots, which, like similar provisions in other states, has drawn recent attention with the growing popularity of posting ballot selfies to social media.

One of Kreiss-Tomkins' colleagues in the House's new coalition majority, Anchorage Democratic Rep. Geran Tarr, pre-filed seven bills. They include requiring cosmetic makers to disclose their products' ingredients; banning the sale of genetically modified fish in Alaska; mandating that workers get at least six days of yearly paid sick leave; and getting Walker's administration to create a tracking system for sexual assault examination kits.

North Pole Republican Rep. Tammie Wilson is sponsoring a bill to make it illegal for the state's child protection agency, the Office of Children's Services, to take custody of kids without a court order — unless it's an emergency. Wilson has criticized the agency over the past year, saying it practices "legal kidnapping," though agency officials dispute that charge and Wilson hasn't publicly released any documentation supporting her statements.

In the Senate, Anchorage Republican Kevin Meyer has a bill that would stop one of the new House leaders, Anchorage Republican Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, from raising money from lobbyists for her political action committee. Lobbyists are otherwise barred from donating directly to legislators or candidates who live outside the lobbyist's district.

Anchorage Republican Sen. Mia Costello has legislation to pave the way for ridesharing companies like Uber to come to Alaska by exempting drivers from the state's workers compensation insurance requirements — though the bill would also mandate national and local background checks before drivers could be hired.

Wielechowski, the Anchorage Democratic senator, has resurrected a bill to stop paying lawmakers' salaries and living expenses if they haven't passed a budget by the session's 90th day — the limit set in a 2006 citizens initiative.

The Legislature, since it has the power to set its own laws, routinely ignores the 90-day limit and adheres instead to a 121-day cap that's laid out in the state constitution. Anchorage Democratic Rep. Matt Claman released his own proposed solution Monday: a constitutional amendment that would bring the 121-day limit down to 91.

A second batch of pre-filed legislation is set for release Friday.