Lawmakers prep for 1st full week

JUNEAU — The Alaska Legislature on Monday will open its first full week of work this session with a crime summit and bills addressing the state’s oil and gas production tax and pensions among the highlights.


Lawmakers also plan to hear a bill that would ban texting while driving and continue their work on the state budget.

The crime summit, scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday, is being sponsored by the Senate Judiciary Committee. Goals of the conference include identifying cost-effective crime-fighting methods and steps to improve public safety. 

Committee Chairman Hollis French said a similar summit four years ago prompted conversation about where the state’s criminal justice system is, and where it needs to go. It led to a study on sentencing and rehabilitation.

This year’s opening speaker is scheduled to be Annie Pennucci of the Washington State Institute for Public Policy. Pennucci will focus on how education, including early childhood education and adult programs, can reduce crime rates. Prosecutors and the director of the Public Defender Agency, law enforcement and corrections officials and victims’ advocates also are among those expected to testify.

French, D-Anchorage, said it’s too early to say whether any special initiatives will arise from the summit. But he said it’s important to bring together criminal justice experts to get a better sense for what the current state of affairs is within the system and then consider catalysts for change.

“We just have our hands full,” French, a former prosecutor, said, noting problems like domestic violence, sexual assault and alcoholism in the state. “And you can’t build enough prisons; you can’t send everybody to prison. You sort of have to change the state at a more fundamental level.”

Also on the legislative schedule this week: the return of decoupling. The measure in front of the Senate Finance Committee, SB167, which would change the state’s system of taxing oil and gas production together, is the same one that lawmakers passed two years ago, and the governor vetoed. 

Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka and a committee co-chair, said hopes to find a compromise between the industry and state. If the Senate advances an oil tax bill, he said he’d like to see decoupling as an element of that. He doesn’t expect a discussion on where to set the gas tax this session.

The Senate State Affairs on Thursday is expected to hear SB121, which would let public employees choose between an individual defined contribution retirement account, like a 401(k), and earning a defined benefit pension, like a traditional pension. 

In 2005, the legislature passed a measure taking the state from a defined benefit program to defined contribution. The unfunded liability has risen since passage of the law, and the state is grappling with how to deal with $11 billion in unfunded pension liabilities. 

A major union in the state, National Education Association-Alaska, supports a return to defined benefits.

The bill would give new and current employees the option of going that route. Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, in his sponsor statement, said the bill creates a “more stable, more predictable” pension tier for teachers and public employees.

Also Thursday, the House Transportation Committee will hear HB255, a ban on texting while driving. The state’s intended ban, passed in 2008, faces a legal challenge, with a magistrate in Kenai recently saying the Legislature should have been explicit if it truly meant to prohibit the activity. 

The measure, introduced by Reps. Les Gara and Bill Thomas, has at least five co-sponsors, Republicans and Democrats.