Government for the people. That should be the theme of the 32nd Alaska Legislative Session. Alaska is facing too many crises that must be addressed with urgency and seriousness —the state’s dire fiscal situation, supporting Alaskans as they continue to navigate the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, addressing systemic racism, and ensuring the public can fully participate in its democracy, from access to voting to having faith that its government is transparent.
How to be engaged
Before we dive into some of the bills in play this session, we wanted to share a friendly reminder.
Things look a little bit different this year with COVID-19 rules and guidelines in place, thanks to a late-2020 vote by the Legislative Council. The public is not allowed in the Capitol, meaning that giving testimony will need to happen virtually. Everyone who is permitted will have to wear a face covering and follow other health protocols. The press has limited access in galleries and chambers, too. (These rules could change when the House organizes.)
But that doesn’t mean we can’t be engaged. We will continue to pay close attention to what’s happening in Juneau and exercise our influence, and we want to have you right there with us. Your elected leaders work for you. When constituents organize and make their voices heard, they make a difference. If you’re interested in being more engaged with our work, please fill out this brief volunteer survey to let us know what’s important to you, and we will be in touch.
You can watch the action online through KTOO’s Gavel Alaska or on television through KTOO 360TV., and follow along with our reports throughout session.
The decisions the legislature makes in Juneau this year will impact your civil liberties and rights, and we hope you’ll join us in solidarity to demand a government that is transparent and accountable to the people in which it serves.
Budget & Oversight
The Legislature is under pressure to solve the state’s dire fiscal crisis. Your elected leaders must work together to find solutions that don’t drain the state’s savings or make continued cuts to programs that are critical to rural Alaska, women, seniors, people with disabilities, incarcerated people, unhoused people, and low-income people. We cannot allow that. The mechanisms of government that ensure our civil rights and liberties must have the resources to effectively function. Cuts in healthcare, education, and other services will disproportionately impact vulnerable populations and widen existing disparities.
We do have a lot of questions about why the state is choosing to spend its limited dollars to move forward with the planned re-opening of Palmer Correctional Center. The mass incarceration crisis in Alaska is out of control and has only been magnified by the pandemic. Our prisons are overcrowded, but the solution isn’t to open more prisons – addressing the pretrial population, issues with parole, clemency, early-release, and alternative housing are. We also have a lot of questions about how the Department of Corrections has handled the pandemic — including implementing proper health and safety measures, weighing the effects of shutting down rehabilitation and visitation, and (along with prosecutors) making use of available tools to keep people out of jail and ensure their success in our communities. Legislative oversight is sorely needed.
There is also the issue of accountability and transparency when it comes to the selection and appointments of Alaska’s attorneys general, confirmed or acting. The Attorney General holds an incredibly influential position and should be held to the highest standard – as should those who select and appointment them. Governor Michael Dunleavy left a lot of questions unanswered when former Attorney General Kevin Clarkson, and his replacement, Ed Sniffen, both abruptly left their posts. When the Legislature holds a confirmation hearing for the next AG nominee, Treg Taylor, it should use the opportunity to ask about Gov. Dunleavy’s knowledge of sexual misconduct allegations against Clarkson and Sniffen, and criteria for selecting nominees. Protecting his selections, who are accused of sexual misconduct, by stonewalling reporters, and refusing to answer public records requests and press questions doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence that he is putting the people first. The Legislature should also obtain commitments from Taylor to remain independent from the Governor’s political agenda and stay committed to the law.
The bills that could impact your rights
Note: The political landscape in Juneau will change once the House organizes, giving us a better idea of what bills may get traction during this session, which is scheduled to last until May 19. Additionally, the legislature’s work on the budget and addressing the state’s fiscal crisis may take a lot of time, especially if the House takes a while to organize. But these are a few of the top items on our watch list right now.
- Voting rights: We have already seen voting rights come into focus in Juneau, with Senator Mike Shower’s voter suppression bill, SB 39, receiving preliminary hearings in the State Affairs committee, which he chairs. This bill would eliminate the state’s Automatic Voter Registration system, criminalize the possession of ballots in a wide variety of circumstances, prohibit certain municipalities from voting by mail, and erect other barriers to the ballot. Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer has indicated he will introduce legislation to repeal Automatic Voter Registration, which was approved by nearly two-thirds of voters in 2016. These lawmakers say they are not attempting to disenfranchise voters, and say they intend their bills to protect against election fraud and error. But these are, at best, solutions in search of a problem. Alaska has not had an issue with voter fraud; politicians’ claims otherwise only undermine the democratic process and your votes.
Especially in the lead-up to 2022, the next statewide election—featuring a gubernatorial and U.S. Senate election—voting rights are more important than ever. We expect this could be a protracted fight this year in Juneau, to set the stage for next year.
- On the other hand, Representative Chris Tuck has the right idea. HB 66 would expand voter access through same-day voter registration, providing postage for absentee ballots, and ballot curing (giving voters an opportunity to fix an issue with an absentee ballot). It would also start absentee ballot counting sooner and establish minimum wage for poll workers.
- Policing: Senator Elvi Gray-Jackson has proposed reforms for how police use force in Alaska. Following months of civil unrest and public demands to address racial disparities in policing and the criminal legal system, she filed a set of six bills related to use of force policy — including legislation intended to ban chokeholds, require de-escalation, and establish a use-of-force database. The impacts of systemic racism in policing, and incidents of police using force that is disproportionate and does not prioritize the sanctity of human life, continue to surface and call for stronger statewide use-of-force policy. We are following closely and will work to ensure the policy is as strong as possible.
- Reproductive rights: Senator Hughes pre-filed a constitutional amendment (SJR 4) that would undermine Alaskans’ constitutional right to abortion care. We will mobilize with full force should this start to move.
- Independent judiciary: Senator Shower pre-filed two pieces of legislation — one a constitutional amendment — that would increase the influence of the executive and legislative branches on the state’s courts. The Alaska Judicial Council, which screens applicants for judgeships and nominates the most qualified to the governor, is a model of independence. But SB 14, which has its first hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee today, would among other things allow the governor to appoint people to judgeships who were not nominated by the Judicial Council, subject to approval from the Legislature. Currently, the Council puts forth nominees based on merit. SJR 2 (introduced by Senator Shower) would subject the three attorney members of the Council to approval by the legislature; currently they are appointed by the Board of Governors of the Alaska Bar Association. However, this constitutional amendment did not move during last session and faces a high bar to pass out of the legislature – the approval of 2/3 of the House and Senate, rather than simple majority. Taken together, however, these are attempts to make detrimental structural changes to the state’s courts.
We’ll be in touch soon.