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Alaska Legislature

The Alaska Senate quit its special session in Juneau. But the House is forcing it to continue.

  • Author: Nathaniel Herz
  • Updated: November 14, 2017
  • Published November 13, 2017

JUNEAU — Did you think the Alaska Senate's vote Friday to adjourn from the special legislative session would spare you another week of political infighting?

If so, you thought wrong.

Alaska House leaders said Monday that they're refusing to quit the special session because they want senators to come back and consider a tax proposal from Gov. Bill Walker, and to fix what several attorneys have identified as a constitutional problem with the criminal justice bill that passed both chambers last week.

That move effectively makes the Senate's vote Friday moot, since the the Alaska Constitution says neither chamber can adjourn for longer than three days without agreement from the other.

And it means that Anchorage Republican Sen. Kevin Meyer, a member of Senate leadership, will be back in Juneau on Tuesday to preside over a "technical session," in which lawmakers conduct no formal business.

Meyer and Juneau Sen. Dennis Egan are expected to be the only ones present out of the Senate's 20 members. Senate President Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, is expected to preside over another technical session Saturday, said Peter Torkelson, a spokesman for Kelly's Senate majority.

But don't count on the full Senate returning to Juneau before the 30-day deadline on the special session runs out November 21.

"The Senate voted already," Eagle River Republican Sen. Anna MacKinnon said in a phone interview Monday. "I do not see the Senate rescinding our action."

The standoff between the Senate and House stems from Senate Bill 54, which Gov. Bill Walker included on the special session's agenda along with a tax bill.

SB 54, sponsored by North Pole Republican Sen. John Coghill, was aimed at reversing, and tweaking, last year's criminal justice overhaul, Senate Bill 91.

The overhaul aimed to reduce the state's reliance on expensive prison beds and instead use cheaper alternatives like probation, parole and enhanced supervision for people out on bail — which the legislation's supporters said would be more effective at stopping convicts from committing more crimes.

But SB 91, soon after it passed, faced a backlash from law enforcement, victims advocates and lawmakers' constituents, and in April, the Senate approved SB 54 as a response.

That initial version of the legislation toughened some criminal sentences — pushing them back toward what they were before the overhaul. The House, in the first two weeks of the special session, then heavily amended the bill to boost prison sentences even more.

But after the House's 32-8 vote last week to approve SB 54 and send it back to the Senate for a concurrence vote, attorneys for the Legislature and the Walker administration, as well as the state's lead public defender, identified a constitutional problem with the bill.

[Related: Proposed SB 91 rollbacks pass Alaska House, head to an uncertain Senate]

By boosting sentences for first-time, low-level felonies, it made prison terms the same as for the next level of felonies — potentially running afoul of a constitutional provision that the courts have interpreted as barring arbitrary criminal penalties.

Even after those warnings, the Senate voted 11-8 to pass the amended bill Friday, then adjourned from the special session. Walker says he will sign the legislation, even as the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska has warned of a lawsuit.

But House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, said in a prepared statement Monday that his chamber will continue to hold technical sessions through the special session's conclusion next week, in hopes of the Senate agreeing to fix SB 54 and taking up Walker's tax proposal.

Sixteen of the House's 40 members were at the Capitol on Monday for their six-minute meeting, though only the two Juneau representatives — Democrats Sam Kito III and Justin Parish — are expected to remain for the next week, Edgmon said.

"If the Senate decides to act, the entire House of Representatives will be called back into session," the statement read.

Eagle River Republican Sen. Anna MacKinnon. (Nathaniel Herz / Alaska Dispatch News)

But MacKinnon, the Eagle River Republican who's a member of Senate leadership, said it was unlikely her chamber would be back in Juneau.

"I think we're past the point of no return," she said.

MacKinnon, in a phone interview, expressed frustration that the House had approved SB 54 with its beefed-up sentencing provisions "so they could be tough on crime," even as one lawmaker, Anchorage Democratic Rep. Matt Claman, had briefly referenced the potential problem with the increased felony sentences in a speech on the House floor.

MacKinnon said the Senate, before voting to pass the House version of SB 54, had been willing to work with that chamber to fix the constitutional problem.

But, she added, she ultimately voted to approve the legislation — and pass up a potential fix — because she wasn't confident the House would have the votes needed to correct the problem.

And that, she added, could have jeopardized the chances of the bill passing at all, and risked losing its other provisions.

"You'd lose all the work that has been done if they didn't vote yes," MacKinnon said.

Asked whether the House had the votes to adjust SB 54's problematic provision,

Rep. Zach Fansler, D-Bethel. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

one majority member, Democrat Zach Fansler of Bethel, said that was a "hypothetical" question, though he added that he thought so.

A joint House-Senate conference committee could have met and proposed a change, Fansler said. Then the members could return to their respective chambers, he added, "and say, 'Look: This or nothing.'"

"I think that gets everybody's vote in line," Fansler said.

Walker, the one other player with power to shape the remaining days of the special session, wasn't available for an interview Monday, said spokesman Jonathon Taylor.

Walker could force lawmakers to take up SB 54 again by threatening to veto the legislation. Or he could introduce a new bill in the last week of the special session to fix the problem with SB 54 — a problem that his administration's own attorneys identified.

But Taylor, in an email, referred back to Walker's statement from Friday, after the Senate approved SB 54, which said the legislation returns "meaningful tools" to law enforcement and judges even if it leaves work still unfinished on the state's criminal justice system.

"The bill certainly isn't perfect, and governor would have preferred to see the House and Senate resolve the outstanding issues via conference committee," Taylor added Monday. "Ultimately, though, the bill takes meaningful steps forward in terms of enhancing public safety, which is what Alaskans have asked for."

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