The first session of the 33rd Alaska Legislature adjourned last week. Lawmakers passed 30 bills this year, which has been right around the recent average for first regular legislative sessions, but far below what legislators in past decades have been able to accomplish.
“We were just tied up too much with the issue of the dividend and the budget and how we’re going to pay for things,” said Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, after adjourning Thursday.
The slow movement on priority bills was tied to the protracted disagreement between the House and Senate majorities over the size of the Permanent Fund dividend, but also questions about the priorities themselves. While members of the bipartisan Senate majority were pretty clear on their plans from the beginning, the House majority — made up mostly of Republicans — was less cohesive. Throughout the session, caucus leaders were never clear on what they hoped to accomplish. In the final days of the session, fellow majority members sometimes worked against each other.
“You need only look at members’ own statements for what priorities were this year and what we all —whether it’s the House minority or House majority — hoped to accomplish,” said House Minority Leader Calvin Schrage, an Anchorage independent. “Not to be critical of any individual or group but frankly, we have not seen those priorities passed in this Legislature.”
Lawmakers will reconvene in January 2024 for the second regular session in the two-year cycle, allowing for hundreds of bills that didn’t pass this year to potentially be revived.
Here’s a rundown of issues that were considered but failed to pass:
School funding increase
The budget adopted by the Legislature this year includes a one-time funding boost of roughly $175 million for public schools. A bill to permanently increase public school funding stalled in the House after passing the Senate. That means unless lawmakers pass the bill next year or secure another round of one-time funding, schools could again face massive budget shortfalls.
The Senate’s bill never got a hearing in the House, but a last-minute effort saw the $175 million education funding increase added to a separate education bill in the House Finance Committee. That bill passed out of committee but was never scheduled for a floor vote, meaning the entire House was not given an opportunity to vote on the bill.
The failure to pass the bill increasing the BSA in the House revealed disagreements on education funding within the House majority caucus. While some have indicated they favor a permanent increase, others have said they first want to reform the funding formula to allow more funding for home-schooled children.
Education advocates in the Legislature say they intend to continue working on securing a permanent education funding increase next year within the BSA. Whether they stick with the number included in the Senate bill, or choose a different one, remains to be seen.
Defined benefits pension bill
Since the beginning of the session, reforming the pension program offered to public employees to make it more generous has been listed as a top priority by the Senate majority, in an effort to solve ongoing challenges in recruitment and retention of workers including teachers and firefighters.
Senate Bill 88 to reform the state’s pension plan made it to the Senate Finance Committee in the final days of the session, when analysts from the state’s actuary indicated it could cost the state far above what was expected. Staffers working on the bill said there may have been an error in how the bill was written or interpreted.
Senate leaders decided in the final days of the session not to vote the bill out of the Finance Committee, with a plan to return next year with more information and a renewed effort to pass the pension reform. But House majority leadership has remained ambivalent about the reform, casting doubt on whether the measure can pass the entire Legislature, even if it receives Senate approval.
Nearly two months after the legislative session began, Gov. Mike Dunleavy introduced one of the most divisive bills of the year: a “parental rights” bill that would limit instruction on gender and sexuality in public schools, and limit the rights of transgender students.
The bill was never scheduled for a hearing in the Senate and stalled in the House, after lawmakers on the House Education Committee voted to amend the bill in ways that many said made it untenable.
The governor’s original legislation would have prohibited instruction on gender and sexuality before fourth grade and would have required written parental permission for students to participate in all instruction related to those topics beginning in fourth grade, in an effort that mirrors a Florida measure that opponents called the “don’t say gay” bill. Dunleavy’s bill would have also barred transgender students from using single-sex facilities like bathrooms and locker rooms according to their preferred gender.
An amendment stripped the bill of most of the language pertaining to gender and sexuality, and changed the parental notification requirement to apply to all classroom content — not just sex education.
The bill advanced from the House Education Committee to the Judiciary Committee three weeks before the end of the session, but it was never scheduled for a hearing. Lawmakers could revive the bill next year, but it remains highly unlikely that the bill will gain any traction in the Senate.
LGBTQ+ anti-discrimination bill
After a Daily News and ProPublica report revealed that the Alaska Human Rights Commission quietly dropped its policy last year banning discrimination against LGBTQ+ people, a bill to enshrine anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ people in state law gained more traction in the Legislature this year than in the past — but it still failed to pass.
House Bill 99, which would explicitly ban discrimination against LGBTQ+ people in housing and other areas of the law, passed out of two House committees before stalling in the Judiciary Committee.
Judiciary Chair Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer, refused to schedule the bill for a hearing, and an effort by bill sponsor Rep. Jennie Armstrong, D-Anchorage, to force the measure out of Vance’s committee, failed on the House floor in a 22-18 vote.
With one week to go before the end of the session, Armstrong sponsored a trip of several gay military veterans and two transgender children to the Capitol, where they met with the governor. Dunleavy did not comment publicly on the meeting but the other participants said the meeting was not contentious.
In the Senate, a companion bill was introduced but never scheduled for a committee vote. The bipartisan Senate majority indicated at the beginning of the session they would stay clear of social issues, but seven of the chamber’s nine Democrats have co-sponsored the legislation.
Long-term fiscal plan
Despite a late push from the governor and legislative leaders, no legislation to implement a long-term fiscal plan passed the Legislature this session. The Senate passed a 75-25 dividend formula bill, which would pay a $1,300 PFD this year. The House majority then doubled that dividend formula figure despite projections that it would create an $800 million deficit in the coming fiscal year.
In the final days of the session, the House majority’s fiscal plan faltered amid a feud between members based on sharp ideological divides. No new tax measures passed either legislative chamber, but the governor has indicated he may call an October special session for lawmakers to debate a fix for Alaska’s structural deficit.
Dunleavy did not introduce a state sales tax bill before the end of session, despite previewing the measure in April.
Oil tax increase
After a gloomy revenue forecast, a measure was introduced in the Senate midway through the session to increase taxes on the oil industry as a way to generate substantial new state revenue. The oil industry launched an online campaign strongly opposing the legislation, raising concerns it would disincentivize industry investment. Senate Bill 114 — which was expected to raise $1.3 billion in its first year — stalled in the Senate and received a frostier reception in the House, but proponents said that the groundwork had been laid for another push next year.
A bill to implement several changes to Alaska’s elections process — including signature verification and ballot curing — stalled in the Senate two days before the end of the legislative session. That means even if the bill is taken up by lawmakers next year, changes are unlikely before the 2024 election.
A separate bill to repeal ranked choice voting and open primaries was never brought to a House vote despite some majority members calling it a priority, meaning the 2024 election is all but guaranteed to be held under the state’s new voting system, which was first used in 2022.
Fentanyl and drug offense bill
The Alaska House passed a measure supported by the Dunleavy administration that would impose longer sentences on felony fentanyl offenses as a way to combat an overdose crisis in Alaska. Recovery advocates warned that the bill would be counterproductive for drug users. The Senate did not hold a hearing on the bill.
A separate measure introduced by the governor would allocate $58.5 million that the state is set to receive from drug manufacturers found to be partially responsible for the opioid epidemic. Neither legislative chamber passed that bill, which was focused on substance abuse treatment.
Involuntary commitment reform
A bill to close the legal loophole that allowed a known offender to go free before stabbing an Anchorage woman failed to pass the Legislature amid slow action from House Republicans.
Senate Bill 53 was championed by Angela Harris, who was stabbed in the back while at Anchorage’s Loussac Library in February 2022. The measure would have fixed a known problem in Alaska law by requiring the state to petition for some violent offenders suffering from mental illness to be involuntarily committed to a psychiatric institute.
The bill passed the Senate with a week to go before the end of the session. But one key House member, Rep. Vance, refused to schedule the bill for a vote in the House Judiciary Committee, effectively blocking it despite support for the bill from a majority of her own caucus.
A last-minute effort by Rep. Jesse Sumner, R-Wasilla, to amend another bill to include provisions from Senate Bill 53 and the governor’s fentanyl bill was blocked by House leadership members.