The 31st Legislative Session is underway in Alaska's coastal capital and tension is already building, as pressure to solve Alaska's fiscal crisis increases with a proposed budget from Governor Michael Dunleavy that drains Alaska's savings and has divided lawmakers, some of whom are looking at earnings from the permanent fund to help reduce the deficit.
It's easy for the budget and permanent fund to take up all the space in Juneau. After all, according to Alaska law, finalizing our state's budget is the only piece of business lawmakers must complete before gaveling out at the end of a short legislative session. Unresolved budget issues routinely require special sessions and make it challenging for Alaska's elected leaders to tackle other critical issues facing their constituents.
We are committed to monitoring budget activity for one simple reason – to guarantee that the mechanisms of government that ensure our civil rights and liberties have the needed resources to work effectively – but the budget's not the only thing happening in Juneau that's got our attention.
What we're watching
Disclaimer: The landscape in Juneau will continue to change as progress is made on the budget, and lawmakers focus on the governor's priorities. As such, this watchlist is subject to change.
- Budget: Without a properly funded budget, Alaskans' rights to competent legal representation, an independent judiciary, swift legal proceedings, and equal protection in healthcare, education, and other government services are at risk. We are actively monitoring issues in several agency budgets to ensure essential services are adequately funded.
One key concern is Governor Dunleavy's use of the budget to attack an independent branch of government. Last year, he reduced the Alaska Supreme Court's budget by $334,700 because of a ruling affirming Alaskans' right to reproductive choice, a position at odds with his own personal and political beliefs. The governor's proposed budget makes this same funding cut for the upcoming fiscal year. No governor has the authority to violate the Alaska and U.S. Constitutions' separation of powers.
On April 15, 2020, we'll be back in an Anchorage courtroom fighting to restore this funding.
- Alaska's prison crisis: With last session's passage of House Bill 49, which reversed much of Alaska's criminal justice reforms, our state's prisons are dangerously overcrowded. In October, the Department of Corrections (DOC) announced it would be sending hundreds of Alaskans to private prisons in the Lower 48, despite having received funding from the legislature to reopen Palmer Correctional Center. Not only do private, out-of-state prisons compromise inmates' rehabilitation, but they also have allowed sophisticated, dangerous gangs to gain a foothold in Alaska. Under sustained pressure from Representative Zack Fields and his colleagues in the legislature, DOC reversed course and will once again pursue in-state solutions to Alaska's prison crisis. Representative Fields's bill, HB 187, would ban the state from putting Alaskans into private prison facilities and prevent this issue from coming up again. We are supporting its passage.
The bigger issue is that the Administration hasn't revealed an effective strategy for addressing the causes of the current prison overcrowding crisis. Roughly half the state's prison population is made up of Alaskans who are unsentenced, behind bars without having been convicted of a crime. This is not a problem DOC can fix on its own, and we hope to see legislators continue to engage the Administration on real and comprehensive solutions.
- Equal pay: Women in Alaska earn 79 cents for every dollar a man makes, and despite a growing economy in recent years, our state's gender pay gap has been widening. The gap starts early and grows over the course of a woman's career, resulting in the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars during their working life. Representative Geran Tarr has introduced a bill that could help close the gap. HB 200 would prohibit employers from using an applicant's previous wage history as a basis for determining future pay so that new employees are offered a salary based on their experience, skills, and credentials, rather than a history that may reflect systemic bias or discrimination. Measures like HB 200 help end practices that perpetuate the wage gap for women, minorities, and members of LGBTQ+ community. We have been examining pay parity issues in Alaska and support HB 200's passage.