As Legislature wraps up, what's been done and what's still to come?

In a regular session dominated by money and marijuana, a policy debate about teaching medicine entered the Alaska Legislature this year through a plan by the state House to end a long-established collaboration with the University of Washington School of Medicine intended to boost the supply of Alaska doctors.

While the Alaska Legislature began a special session Tuesday, the regular session that wrapped up Monday led to action or inaction on a wide range of topics that have sparked public debate since January. It's too early for a definitive list of losers and winners, but the WWAMI program appears to be a winner.

The discussion about medical school emerged as the state House proposed that the state give the required three-year notice to end participation in the so-called WWAMI program at the University of Washington medical school and save about $3 million a year. The name is constructed from the first letters of the states that participate in the program -- Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho.

The House plan drew heavy opposition from those who argued it was a cost-effective way to make medical school accessible to Alaskans. The budget conference committee agreed and took WWAMI off the terminal list. Jane Shelby, the director of the WWAMI program in Anchorage, said it is an essential element in training primary care physicians, many of whom serve in rural areas.

The budget bill that contained the funds for WWAMI and provided for other state services won final approval from the Legislature Monday, but it's not a document that Gov. Bill Walker intends to sign. He called the special session to deal with Medicaid expansion, sexual abuse prevention programs and the budget -- which means that funding decisions remain uncertain.

Technically the WWAMI decision could be reversed, though it is not one of the high-profile sticking points -- which include funding for state employee contracts, education and the difference of more than $3 billion between the amount proposed for spending and the money designated to pay the bills.

The Legislature approved 43 bills during the session, along with 33 resolutions. Bills, if they are signed by the governor, become part of state law. Resolutions express opinions and do not carry the force of law. Nearly 300 bills introduced in the House and Senate this year -- many of which never received a hearing -- remain alive and could be acted upon in 2016, when the 29th Legislature convenes its official second regular session.


Among the bills that received little formal attention are an assortment dealing with income taxes, oil taxes, tax credits, the use of the Permanent Fund earnings and several plans that fall under the general heading of "revenue." By and large, the Legislature gave revenue bills the silent treatment in 2015. But Walker and some legislators have said that they expect to begin dealing with that side of the finance picture in some detail this year.

Here is a look at some issues that attracted legislative and public attention during the regular session:

• The governor vetoed one bill so far this year: House Bill 132, a measure that epitomized the split with the Legislature on the proposed gas pipeline. The bill attempted to block the Walker administration from revising what had been a plan for a small gas pipeline and turning it into a larger backup gas pipeline plan that would move forward if the state gas line partnership with the oil companies, known as AKLNG, falters.

The Legislature approved the bill by a wide margin, but a few votes short of the two-thirds majority necessary to override a veto. The Constitution requires vetoed bills to be brought up "immediately" if they are vetoed during a legislative session. House Speaker Mike Chenault, the chief proponent of the bill, didn't bring it up for a vote after Walker struck down the bill April 17.

"We cannot have legislation that ties Alaska's hands while we are trying to negotiate the best possible gas line deal for Alaskans," Walker said at the time. "This bill prevents the state from having an adequate backup plan should the AKLNG efforts not proceed."

The House and Senate majorities reduced the amount of funding available for preparing the backup gas pipeline plan by diverting $157 million to education in their budget Monday. In his special session budget bill Tuesday, Walker compromised. He proposed that $118 million be diverted from the in-state pipeline fund to education. Administration officials said that transfer would leave enough funds in the account to continue progress on the backup plan.

• Another bill backed by Chenault, this one to subsidize the operations of the mothballed Agrium plant in his home district, if it reopens, won House approval, but House Bill 100 remains in the Senate Resources Committee. The Department of Revenue estimated that the subsidy could be $3 million to $4 million a year, though the exact amount is not known.

• The 2014 voter initiative to legalize marijuana under state law led numerous committees to devote much of the session to the ins and outs of cannabis. The Legislature approved the creation of a marijuana control board to deal with regulation and sale of the drug. House Bill 123 awaits action by the governor. House Bill 75, which deals with local regulations and a host of marijuana issues, won approval in the House, but failed 10-10 in the Senate. To keep the bill alive, the Senate moved it to the Senate Rules Committee, where it remains. Senate Bill 30, which attempts to modify Alaska's criminal statutes with respect to pot, remains in the House Judiciary Committee.

• As the session neared an end, the Legislature gave final approval to a multifaceted Fairbanks energy project that Walker had pegged as a priority. House Bill 105 endorses a modified plan, first approved in 2013, to involve the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority in helping the growth of a natural gas supply -- perhaps from Cook Inlet -- and the expansion of a Fairbanks utility system.

• On a 16-4 vote, the Senate approved Senate Bill 6 to eliminate Daylight Saving Time in Alaska and to ask the federal government to hold hearings to consider putting most of Alaska in the Pacific Time Zone. It is in the House State Affairs Committee.

• The House unanimously approved House Bill 155 to repeal or modify a variety of obsolete tax credits, such as a cigarette tax stamp discount. The bill remains in the Senate Labor & Commerce Committee.

• By a House vote of 21-19 and a Senate vote of 13-7, the Legislature backed a one-cent tax on fuel sold in the state to help pay for the cleanup of oil spills and other hazardous materials. House Bill 158 is expected to generate about $7.5 million a year.

• The film tax subsidy program would end under Senate Bill 39, which awaits action by the governor. Any tax credits approved before July 1 would be paid. Of the $300 million designated to pay for the film tax credits, perhaps two-thirds may be unspent.

• Legislators approved a bill setting out guidelines for state policy on the Arctic. House Bill 1 defines the region as the waters from the Aleutian Islands north and the landmass north of the Arctic Circle, but "for the purpose of international Arctic policy, 'Arctic' means the entirety of the state."

• Some offenders would be allowed to get credit against a jail sentence for time served while under electronic monitoring, according to House Bill 15, which awaits review by the governor. Backers of the bill said that it would help reduce overcrowding in state prisons and cut costs.

• The state would no longer agree to reimburse school districts for up to 70 percent of bonds approved by local voters under SB 64. The bill, which Walker has allowed to become law without his signature, calls for a five-year moratorium on new projects. He said there was confusion over the effective date of the measure, which was retroactive to the beginning of the year.

"The Department of Law has advised me that the bill will still have retroactive application despite the failure of the effective date provisions, since an effective date clause operates independently of the date of retroactive application. The failure of the effective date clause does not change the date of retroactive application," Walker told legislators Friday.


At the time of the legislative debate, legislators and news reports said the bill would not be retroactive and that the $59.3 million in Anchorage school bonds voted on in early April would not be subject to the moratorium.

Walker said, "News reports lead me to believe some members of the public thought the failure of the immediate effective date also meant failure of the provision on retroactive application. This confusion is understandable. So while the bill is legally sound, and even though I support efforts to reduce our state's budget, including debt service, I would prefer that this have been done in a manner more understandable for Alaskans."

Dermot Cole

Former ADN columnist Dermot Cole is a longtime reporter, editor and author.