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Alaska Legislature

Senate delays decision on anti-crime legislation

Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, looks at the clock in the Alaska Senate chambers as she discusses whether to delay a vote on an omnibus crime bill Monday, May 13, 2019. (James Brooks / ADN)

JUNEAU — The Alaska Senate on Monday delayed a final vote on a new anti-crime law that seeks to repeal and replace the 2016 criminal justice reform law known as Senate Bill 91.

The announcement came as fiscal experts updated the cost estimates for the proposal. Through 2021, the new law will cost the state $100 million, and future costs could exceed $50 million per year, according to the latest estimates.

Speaking after an aborted floor session, Senate President Cathy Giessel said Monday’s delay was needed to allow senators to draft amendments to House Bill 49, which passed the House last week and was extensively rewritten by the Senate Finance Committee over the weekend.

“They just aren’t ready yet, so it’s only fair to wait and give all members the opportunity (to offer amendments),” Giessel said.

Lawmakers consider passage of HB 49 to be one of three items required before the legislative session adjourns for the summer. The other two are a funded state budget and a firm amount for this year’s Permanent Fund dividend. The session is scheduled to end Wednesday.

A House and Senate conference committee met twice Monday in further work on a compromise state budget, and Giessel said the dividend amount is “still under discussion. Looking for a solution there.”

In separate work, analysts have updated cost estimates for HB 49 after the Senate Finance Committee’s rewrite. According to a sum of those estimates, the legislation will cost $45 million in the fiscal year that starts July 1 and $54.3 million in the following fiscal year. Subsequent years are expected to have a slightly reduced additional cost.

Much of the cost would be shouldered by the state’s prison system. HB 49 increases sentences for most misdemeanors and felonies, creates new crimes and reduces the attractiveness of programs such as electronic monitoring that serve as alternatives to traditional stays behind bars.

“This bill increases the number of inmates to a level that exceeds the (prison) system’s capacity,” wrote Teri West, deputy director of the Alaska Department of Corrections, in a fiscal estimate published Monday.

“If the department’s projections are correct, it will need to reopen the currently‐shuttered Palmer Correctional Center (PCC) in order to have the capacity to accommodate the projected increase in inmates,” she wrote.

Reopening the Palmer prison is estimated to cost $20.2 million in the next fiscal year, and keeping it open would cost another $14.1 million per year in subsequent years, according to the estimate.

The Palmer Correctional Center. (Alaska Department of Corrections)

The increase in convicts will surpass the capacity of the Palmer prison, the Department of Corrections expects. According to the estimate, the additional cost would be $11 million in the next fiscal year, rising to $24.7 million and more than $26 million per year in subsequent years.

Other state departments, such as the Department of Law, expect additional costs as well, but the Department of Corrections is expected to see the biggest increase.

If HB 49 passes the Senate as expected, the question will become whether the House will agree with the changes. Agreement, formally known as concurrence, is the final step before the bill is sent to the governor.

Speaking to reporters last week, House Rules Chairman Chuck Kopp, R-Anchorage, said that if the House does not concur, it would be “problematic” to create a House-Senate compromise before the regular legislative session ends Wednesday.

Lawmakers could still do the work in a special session.

“The governor would like the House to concur,” Dunleavy press secretary Matt Shuckerow said on Monday.

House Minority Leader Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage, said, “as it stands now, I believe (the Senate changes) would find support from our members.”

With the support of the Republican House minority’s 15 members and that of independent Republican Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage, supporters of the changes still need five more votes for a majority in the 40-member House.

Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, says he likely will support the Senate changes and can think of two or three others.

“After that, it gets murky,” he said, speculating that there are between 18 and 22 members who support the Senate changes.

Rep. Gary Knopp, R-Soldotna, is not one of those supporters. Speaking after a Monday meeting of the House Finance Committee, he said the changes wrought by the Senate have not all been vetted by House lawmakers.

“I think the Senate’s probably killed it for this session,” he said, saying there’s simply not enough time for House lawmakers to read and understand the Senate changes.

“I think you’ll see it come back in special session, I really do. But that’s just an opinion,” he said.

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