Overtime Week 3: Criminal justice reform passes House, credit issue still unresolved

  • Lawmakers and criminal justice advocates crowd around Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, center, a sponsor of a massive criminal justice overhaul bill in Alaska that passed the House on May 5 in Juneau. Photo/Rashah McChesney

The state House passed a major criminal justice reform bill late Thursday after days of wrangling over amendments on the floor and lengthy committee hearings. The vote was 28-11 in favor of passage.

The bill now goes back to the Senate, which passed the bill 16-2 on April 9. Following the House passage, senators will now review changes made in the House. It is expected that the changes will be accepted, however, which avoids the need for a conference committee on the bill.

Passage of the crime bill along with a Medicaid reform bill earlier in the session are seen as major accomplishments even as lawmakers remain at impasse over a controversial bill making changes in the state’s oil and gas tax credit program, and a bill establishing a structure for using Permanent Fund earnings to fill the state budget deficit of more than $4 billion.

Senate Bill 91, the criminal justice bill, streamlines sentencing provisions in criminal law and sets out alternatives to prison for low-level offenders. It also facilitates inmate-release community support and counseling to reduce recidivism, or a return to crime and prison.

A major goal is saving money — prison costs have become a big burden to the state budget — but the bill is also about developing a more rational structure for incarceration.

About half the inmates now in Alaska’s jails are there for non-violent, low-level crimes or awaiting trial.

As the bill passed the Senate it didn’t seem controversial but as the legislation progressed through the House opposition developed, including people supporting a hard-line “tough on crime” policy to crime victims advocacy groups, who also opposed coddling criminals.

Small businesses also weighed in, worried about provisions in SB 91 that reduced the number of property crimes listed as felonies, making them misdemenors instead.

In the final days of the House deliberations there was also talk of adding language from another bill, a “widows and orphans” provision that was being considered that would grant pension rights to families of slain police officers.

This had been in a separate bill that was bogged down, so, as often happens, a proposal was made to strip the language and add it to a bill that was moving, in this case the crime bill, SB 91. As that was being proposed others jumped in with suggestions that pensions for widows of firefighters killed in the line of duty should also be added.

These measures would have added to the cost of the bill, which already has new funding for community support groups and counseling for released prisoners. In a year when the state is facing a huge budget deficit such added costs are likely to have prompted rejection by the Senate.

Credit impasse

Meanwhile, the impasse in the Legislature over HB 247, the oil tax credit incentive changes, continues in Juneau. The bill is basically the holdup for adjournment, and until it is resolved nothing else will move, including the state operating and capital budgets and the important Permanent Fund earnings bills.

The latest on this is an attempt at a compromise bill being worked out between Reps. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, and Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole. It is an unusual pair to break the impasse; Wilson is very conservative and Seaton is best described as a moderate Republican, though some call him liberal.

The two represent distinct factions, with Seaton aligned with a rebel group of Republicans challenging House leaders led by Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski.

The two have not released details of their proposal but are showing it to other House members seeking support. Other “trial balloons” on the oil tax bill have been floated recently including one by Rules Committee Chair Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, who is part of the House leadership and has introduced the fifth and sixth versions of the bill since a different version of the bill was yanked from the floor April 13 lacking votes to pass.

So far none of these ideas have mustered 21 votes needed for passage in the 40-member House. Passage by the House does not end the issue, however, because HB 247 then goes to the Senate, where Senate Resources chair Sen. Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, and Senate Finance co-chair Sen. Anna MacKinnon, R-Eagle River, are said to have different ideas about the oil tax incentives.

Meanwhile, with the days kicking by toward the constitutional limit of 120 days for the session and a likely special session following that, legislators are being advised by their leaders to secure hotel rooms through to the end of May.

Other bills

Meanwhile, as long as the regular session continues all other bills remain alive and some are likely to pass in the rush for adjournment that will happen once final deals are cut.

One important bill pending is a “reinsurance” bill that would solve a problem that has emerged in the individual and family health insurance market.

Insurance companies selling in this market have suffered heavy losss and one firm, Moda Health has pulled out. This leaves Premera Blue Cross as the only company selling health insurance in the market.

The problem is unique to Alaska because of the very small size of the individual health insurance market. In other states, such as Washington and Oregon, the numbers of people are large enough to absorb losses without making the business unprofitable for insurance companies.

Losses climbed sharply after a number of people with high-cost medical issues left the state’s existing high-risk pool, operated by the Alaska Comprehensive Health Insurance Assoc., or ACHIA, and joined the new Alaska insurance plans offered under the federal Affordable Care Act.

Under the ACA people cannot be denied coverage because of pre-existing conditions, so individuals brought their costs into the new plans but without sufficient numbers to add substantial revenues.

Previously they were covered under ACHIA, which collects fees from Alaska group health insurance plans to subsidize the high costs. Meanwhile, those covered under ACHIA paid high premiums, although most of the costs were subsidized.

When the ACA plans became available the premium costs were lower, and people with high-cost health problems under ACHIA jumped to the new plans.

The legislative proposal would simply expand the existing ACHIA coverage, much as it was before, to essentially the same people with their plans now in the ACA individual insurance market. Since the numbers of high-cost people are about the same, it’s like that fees paid by other health insured will be similar.

However, the bills did hit some headwinds a few weeks ago when labor groups became concerned about whether the bill would affect their members’ health insurance plans. It is uncertain how this was resolved.

Meanwhile, two other bills that have now passed the Legislature, both related to rural communities, include Senate Bill 196, which allocates surplus earnings from the rural Power Cost Equalization fund, and SB 210, which converts the current state community revenue-sharing program to a community “assistance.”

The bottom line of SB 210 is that the amount of money being spent is cut from about $60 million a year to $30 million. The money goes to all municipalities, large and small, to help support services but with a formula that allocates more, on a per capita basis, to small rural villages.

SB 196 is related to community assistance in that part of the surplus from the PCE fund, after the annual power cost support costs are paid, is used to fund the community assistance payments.

If there are surplus earnings remaining they would be used to help fund the state renewable energy grant program, which mainly helps small rural communities.


05/06/2016 - 3:02pm