JUNEAU — In a rarely seen turn of events, the Alaska House failed on Friday to pass a bill sponsored by a majority member — laying bare the disagreements within the Republican-dominated House majority caucus in the final days of the legislative session.
A measure sponsored by conservative Homer Republican Sarah Vance to prohibit boycotts against Israel failed in a 20-20 vote, with several members of her caucus and party voting against the bill.
The vote appeared to heighten tensions within the Republican-led majority.
Supporters of Vance’s bill said that the boycott movement against Israel — which aims to pressure the country to end its military occupation of the Palestinian Territories — constitutes discrimination against a country that has deep ties with the United States. Evangelical Christians have championed similar measures in several other states.
That argument prompted Rep. Jennie Armstrong, an Anchorage Democrat who sponsored legislation to protect LGBTQ+ people from discrimination, to attempt to discharge that measure — House Bill 99 — from the House Judiciary Committee, which is chaired by Vance.
“We have a chance to really make a difference in people’s lives,” Armstrong said, contrasting her legislation with Vance’s bill, which she said would not significantly impact the lives of Alaskans.
House Bill 99 has support from several majority members in the Legislature — likely enough for it to have passed a floor vote — but Vance has been steadfast in her opposition to scheduling the bill for a hearing in her committee.
The discharge vote, which would have made it possible for the House rules chair to schedule the bill for a floor hearing, failed in a narrow 22-18 vote. Two Democratic members of the majority — Rep. Neal Foster of Nome and Rep. CJ McCormick of Bethel — voted with the minority in favor of discharging the bill.
During a break from proceedings, Rep. Zack Fields, a minority Anchorage Democrat, spoke to a group of majority members about the deadlocked vote. He later recounted asking them, “Y’all got screwed, what do you think about that?”
Rep. Jamie Allard, a conservative Eagle River Republican, thought Fields was offering a deal: minority support for the anti-boycott bill in exchange for majority support for the LGBTQ+ protections bill. Allard appeared outraged.
“You don’t belong in office,” she said loudly during the break. “People like you make me sick.”
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After Armstrong’s vote to advance the LGBTQ+ protections bill failed, Wasilla Republican Rep. Jesse Sumner, a majority member, introduced another motion to have a separate bill discharged from Vance’s committee, in an open display of disagreement between members of the same caucus.
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The bill in question would mandate involuntary commitment filings for some violent offenders who are deemed unfit to stand trial. It was introduced by Sen. Matt Claman, an Anchorage Democrat, after a known offender suffering from mental illness stabbed an Anchorage woman last year while she was in a public library.
Vance had previously heard the bill once in her committee but had given no indication she would bring the bill to a vote, despite support for the measure from several members of her caucus.
Sumner withdrew his discharge motion after a flurry of discussions with majority members, which appeared to culminate in an agreement from Vance that she would again give the bill a hearing immediately after the floor session concluded.
Claman said he discussed the bill with Vance after the House floor session, and she told him she wanted to follow the will of Angela Harris, the victim of the library stabbing.
“I understand that today you commented that you would do what I preferred,” Harris wrote in an email Friday afternoon to Vance’s office obtained by the Anchorage Daily News. “If that is the case, I wanted you to know that I would appreciate you passing the current version of the bill through to the finance committee today.”
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After the floor session, the House Judiciary Committee spent most of its meeting discussing an all-but-doomed bill to repeal ranked choice voting and open primaries. Committee members then spent some time discussing the involuntary commitment bill, but Vance again did not bring the bill to a vote, or indicate she would schedule it for an additional hearing.
Asked after the floor session whether he thought the bill would advance from the Judiciary Committee, Sumner said “it will get out of that committee, one way or another.”
Vance’s office door at the Capitol was kept locked Friday afternoon, making her unavailable for an interview after the committee hearing.
Opponents of Vance’s anti-boycott bill accused Vance of advancing a bill that had little relevance to the state at a time when the Legislature had yet to agree on a budget or other critical legislation, with just five days to go until the expected end of the session.
Vance, meanwhile, argued on the House floor that “defending the Jewish people’s right to self-determination in their ancestral homeland is therefore not only righteous, but it’s also our state’s interest to protect our ally.”
The state Department of Administration told lawmakers that Alaska has over 1,400 active contracts worth more than $100,000, which could theoretically be impacted by Vance’s proposal. Investments made by the Alaska Permanent Fund Corp. would be specifically exempted from the ban on boycotts. Vance said the measure was needed to support Israel, which has some business relations with the state of Alaska — Israel has tested missiles at Kodiak’s spaceport.
While the bill failed Friday, lawmakers indicated it could be resurrected for another vote on the House floor Saturday.