JUNEAU — Incoming members of the Alaska Legislature have so far filed 63 bills and five proposed constitutional amendments ahead of the upcoming legislative session, scheduled to begin next Tuesday.
The bills range from establishing October as Filipino American History Month to shielding some low-level marijuana conviction records from public view on the internet. There are some common themes among the pre-filed measures, including proposals to rewrite the state’s election laws and implement a new pension plan for state of Alaska employees.
Ranked-choice voting repeal
Three Republicans are set to introduce bills to repeal Alaska’s new ranked-choice voting and open primary election system, which were narrowly approved by voters in 2020 through Ballot Measure 2.
Republican Reps. Sarah Vance and George Rauscher have legislation ready in the House of Representatives to repeal those changes; Wasilla Republican Sen. Mike Shower is set to introduce the same legislation in the state Senate.
Conservative Republican lawmakers have bristled against the new voting system, saying they have heard from constituents who found it confusing. Supporters have argued ranked-choice voting and open primaries have led to more consensus candidates and moderates getting elected and dispute assertions that Alaskans widely found the new system hard to navigate.
While the House remains unorganized, an effort to repeal ranked-choice voting could face an uphill battle in the 20-seat Alaska Senate. Incoming Senate President Gary Stevens, a Kodiak Republican who heads the 17-member bipartisan majority coalition, said that it was his preference to keep the new election system.
“I think that it worked fine,” he said on Monday. “And I think that we should give it a chance to see if it works in the future.”
Another set of bills deal with limits on campaign contributions and election laws more generally. Last year, the state’s $500 per person, per year donation limit was struck down by a federal appeals court as an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment.
In the final hours of the regular legislative session last May, lawmakers scrambled to craft a compromise campaign contribution limits bill with concerns unlimited donations could increase the risks of corruption and a political system that favors big-money donors. It failed to pass.
“I expect something could pass this year,” said Sen. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks. “It all kind of depends on what the new majority looks like in the House.”
Kawasaki has a bill ready to implement a new $700 annual per person campaign contribution limit, and another that would create an absentee ballot tracking system, among other election changes. There are a handful of other election bills slated to be introduced.
Shower, who sits in the three-member GOP Senate minority, has long been concerned about election security and the 2020 cyberattack on the Division of Elections that exposed 113,000 Alaskans’ personal data. He led efforts in recent years to rewrite the state’s election laws and is set to reintroduce similar bills this year.
One of his bills is geared toward cleaning up the state’s voter rolls after a bipartisan compromise plan failed to pass. Another set of measures would implement a “multi-factor authentication” security system for voters, described last year as potentially similar to using an ATM card with a pin.
Sen. Jesse Kiehl, a Juneau Democrat, said he believes that some election-related measures could pass, but he hasn’t heard much interest from his Senate colleagues about a wholesale repeal of ranked-choice voting.
”I would be shocked if there were 11 votes for that,” he said.
Instead, Kiehl is interested in a number of election-related measures, including one that would allow Alaskans to fix problems with their absentee ballots to ensure they are counted — a process that doesn’t exist in state law known commonly as “ballot curing,” which also appears in Shower’s and Kawasaki’s legislation.
After the special congressional primary election last June, almost 7,500 absentee ballots were rejected, with a greater proportion of those rejected ballots coming from parts of the state where Alaska Natives make up a majority of the population.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska and two other civil rights law firms sued the state of Alaska in August, demanding that a ballot curing measure be implemented. The case remains open in Anchorage Superior Court.
Schools and pensions
After years of virtually flat funding, incoming lawmakers from across the political spectrum have said that increasing school funding will be a top priority during the upcoming legislative session. No bills have been pre-filed so far to do that.
Rep. Andi Story, a Juneau Democrat, sponsored a bill last year to substantially increase the per student funding formula — known as the Base Student Allocation — but it failed to pass. Story, who has served as co-chair of the House Education Committee, said there would need to be more conversations about the size of a proposed increase to school funding before a House proposal is unveiled.
“I think people want to really collaborate and talk about what the number should be,” she said.
A similar approach is being taken in the Senate, while Stevens said there would need to be a discussion of tying increased education funding to improved outcomes by Alaska students. He said another priority for the Senate majority coalition is debating a new pension plan for state workers and teachers.
Lawmakers have heard about the recruitment and retention problems facing the state of Alaska and school districts. The juggling act would be making sure a new pension system could work without causing the state to go broke, Stevens said.
Kiehl prefiled legislation that would implement a defined benefits retirement scheme for all state employees, teachers and municipal workers. He said that there had not been a cost analysis done on his bill recently, but the goal would be for it to be cost neutral in the long term.
Lawmakers abolished pensions for new state employees in 2006 after facing a multibillion-dollar unfunded liability. Since then, there have been attempts to reintroduce a defined-benefits scheme but there have been concerns about its price tag.
“I’m optimistic that there is more support for that than there has been in a very long time,” Kiehl said.
Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, introduced legislation two years ago that would have implemented a new defined benefits pension scheme for law enforcement officers, correctional officers and firefighters. The measure, estimated to cost between $4 million and $7 million per year, passed the House but stalled in the Senate.
Josephson is set to introduce the same bill again. He said it would be great if a new pension plan was extended to all state workers and teachers, but that he is focused on public safety workers, for now.
Spending cap and social issues
A priority for House Republicans is passing a tighter legislative spending cap, said Rep. Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla, who has served as House minority leader for the past two years.
Republican Sen.-elect James Kaufman has reintroduced a spending cap proposal that would tie legislative spending to the performance of Alaska’s private sector. Moving from the House minority to the Senate majority after November’s election, Kaufman said he received a positive response last year from his colleagues and the private sector in the interim.
Kaufman’s proposal is in the form of legislation, and a proposed change to the state constitution that would require support from two-thirds of lawmakers and then a majority of Alaska voters to be approved.
Four other constitutional amendments have so far been offered. One, reintroduced by Palmer Republican Sen. Shelley Hughes, who is set to serve in the Senate minority, would exclude abortion from the Alaska Constitution’s privacy protections.
With a diverse Senate majority coalition, and an even partisan split in the House, Stevens has said the Senate is not interested in debating bills on divisive social issues because there would be little chance of them becoming law.
The next set of pre-filed bills is set to be published online on Friday. The 33rd Alaska Legislature is scheduled to convene its first regular session on Jan. 17.