Senate approves criminal justice reform bill; adjournes special session without addressing taxes
By MARY KAUFFMAN
November 11, 2017
Governor Bill Walker issued a proclamation convening the 30th Alaska State Legislature on October 23rd in Juneau for its fourth special session to address public safety and revenue. The administration was proposing a payroll tax of 1.5 percent of wages earned by Alaskans and non-resident workers, capped at $2,200 or twice the previous year’s permanent fund dividend amount - whichever is higher. For example, a person who earned $50,000 would pay $750 in payroll tax and receive a PFD.
The proposal was expected to generate between $300 million and $325 million - about 15 percent of which is projected to come from non-resident workers, who in 2015 earned more than $2.7 billion.
The rules of the Alaska Legislature demand that the Senate return to session if the Alaska House of Representatives does not Sine Die within the next three days.
In a prepared statement Alaska Governor Bill Walker said, “I am deeply saddened that the Senate has decided to again ignore Alaska’s fiscal crisis. After three years of inaction and $14 billion of lost savings, it is the responsibility of the legislature to work as hard as it can to reach agreements that stop this bleeding of public assets, and restore confidence to our economy. Multiple downgrades from credit agencies and stern warnings from the legislature’s own staff emphasize the urgency of the action required. We need a complete fiscal plan to support prosecutors and police, and to pay for some of the policy decisions made in this amended version of SB 54. Alaskans need real progress on this issue.”
Senate Bill 54 passed the Alaska State Senate in April by a vote of 19-1. The Alaska House of Representatives passed the bill by a vote of 32-8. The House version of the bill was sent to the Alaska State Senate for concurrence, which occurred yesterday.
“What we witnessed today by the State Senate was an abdication of their responsibilities. They allowed a constitutionally flawed bill to be sent to the Governor and they worsened the ongoing recession and fiscal crisis by refusing to even consider a new revenue proposal,” said Speaker of the House Rep. Bryce Edgmon.
Edgmon said, “We can force the Senate back to Juneau but apparently we, and the Governor, can’t actually make them work.”
By a vote of 11 to 8, the Alaska Senate concurred with the Alaska House changes to Senate Bill 54. SB54 toughens Alaska criminal laws reversing some provisions of Senate Bill 91 passed in 2016.
Governor Walker said, “Senate Bill 54 gives meaningful tools back to law enforcement and judges to help keep Alaskans safe. However, our work on criminal justice is not yet over, and SB 54 as amended contains some issues that must be further addressed by the Legislature. My administration remains committed to working with the House and Senate to listen to concerns regarding public safety, and ensuring that Alaskans can feel safe in their homes and communities."
"We got the message loud and clear." said Senator Peter Micciche (R-Soldotna). "Alaskans deserve to feel safe. Senate Bill 54 delivers the tools our police and prosecutors say will help them get the job done."
Senate Bill 54 increases jail time for theft from minor shoplifting to car theft, allows offenders to be jailed for violating conditions of their pre-trial release, aggressively fights drug related crime and increases incarceration for assaults against uniformed first responders, like police officers, paramedics and firefighters.
"My community has been hit hard by increasing crime over the last couple of years" said Senator Anna MacKinnon (R-Eagle River). "I believe SB54 goes a long way to fighting back with the tougher sentences and better protections for both citizens and businesses."
"Alaskans are tired of feeling unsafe as the list of victims grows longer. I am proud to stand with them today by supporting Senate Bill 54." said Senator Micciche. "There must be real consequences for those who refuse to respect the law. While there is no silver bullet to prevent all victimization, what we can do we must do. "
However, the Alaska Majority Coalition said the Alaska State Senate jeopardized the stiffer criminal penalties included in Senate Bill 54 to respond to the recent spike in crime in Alaska. By refusing to fix constitutional problems with the bill through a conference committee, the Senate has guaranteed the bill will be litigated, which would leave in place the lenient sentencing guidelines included in last year’s omnibus criminal justice reform bill.
“One amendment making changes to the sentencing range for first-time class C felonies will probably result in a legal challenge that could void all or some of the changes for stiffer penalties that are included in Senate Bill 54 to address crime in Alaska. By not addressing these changes demanded by Alaskans, the Senate is essentially turning back the clock on our efforts to clean up Senate Bill 91,” said House Judiciary Committee Chair Rep. Matt Claman (D-Anchorage).
Claman said, “I am surprised that the Senate concurred with a bill that has constitutional issues that we only learned about after the bill passed the full House of Representatives. Their decision undermines all the good work both bodies have done to move forward with justice reform and improve public safety.”
Attorneys with the Alaska Department of Law and the Public Defender Agency went on the record during Friday’s Senate Finance Committee meeting confirming that Senate Bill 54 will be challenged in court due to the changes made to some C felonies.
Several legal experts believe the amendment in question violates the constitutional right to due process because it makes the penalty for some C felonies identical to the penalty for some B felonies. B felonies are considered more serious crimes. The due process concerns revolve around the requirement that criminal sentences match the actual crime.
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