Lower profile legislation chugs through extended session
As the legislative session in Juneau grinds on toward May approaching the 120-day constitutional limit, a number of bills important to business are still pending.
Two business-related measures have passed, and some are at an advanced stage that could possibly become law this year.
Most, however, will wait until 2018. In a two-year session, bills introduced in the first year can be held over to the second.
One measure that has passed establishes a mechanism for financing energy improvements on private buildings. House Bill 80 has passed both the House and Senate and is awaiting transmittal to Gov. Bill Walker.
The bill allows municipalities to establish a program for local building owners to finance improvements including energy conservation or renewable energy systems with payments made through property tax assessments. The procedure is similar to that done with water and sewer extensions.
HB 80 was a priority for Fairbanks-area legislators where building owners hope to use it to lower costs for converting to natural gas. It is not available for residential buildings, however.
Another bill now passed and en route to the governor is Senate Bill 9, by Sen. John Coghill, R-Fairbanks, that straightens out technical problems in existing law regarding establishing special business zones near military bases that may qualify for certain federal funds.
An important bill that is pending, and which may make it to passage this year, is Sen. Peter Micciche’s Senate Bill 64, now in the House Labor and Commerce Committee. It passed the Senate 19-1 on March 27.
The measure would allow for an environmental “covenant,” a form of legal notice, to become a recordable interest in deeds on property where environmental contamination is present.
The procedure is used in many states, but so far not Alaska.
The covenant recognizes the presence of contamination and describes it, and provides for any restrictions on use of the property needed to protect human health, said Kristen Ryan, director of the Department of Environmental Conservation’s spill prevention and contaminated sites program.
Environmental regulators, which in Alaska is the DEC, signs off on the agreement, as does the property owner, Ryan said.
In his sponsor statement, Micciche said, “A covenant provides transparency throughout the life of the property and provides assurances to buyers and sellers that risks will be safely managed. In other states covenants have been useful in transforming blighted property into marketable assets, he said.
The benefit with the covenant is adding certainty for property owners, and buyers, who worry about long-term liability if they purchase property with contamination.
Another important bill, but one that may run out of time this session, is House Bill 79, a measure sponsored by Gov. Bill Walker that would streamline state workers’ compensation procedures and also add a legal definition of an independent contractor for purposes of workers’ compensation insurance.
The bill is now in House Finance Committee after having passed through the Labor and Commerce and Judiciary committees.
No one is objecting to the streamlining parts of HB 79 but intense disagreements developed over the independent contractor definition.
Those have now been resolved, according to sources familiar with the bill, but progress of the legislation was slowed so much that it may just be held until 2018.
A Senate version, SB 40, is in the Labor and Commerce Committee, where it has had one hearing, on Feb. 28.
The wrangle over the definition of independent contractor resulted because no definition currently exists in state statute and the state Division of Workers’ Compensation is concerned with some employers who abuse the system by improperly classifying employees as contractors.
That allows requirements to purchase workers’ compensation insurance to be avoided, lowering their costs.
The original definitions in HB 79 raised concerns from the Alaska Truckers Association and small business groups who worried that the language wouldn’t fit owner-operators of trucks or professionals working as consultants.
Negotiations among the affected groups and the Division of Workers’ Compensation continued through the spring as the bill moved through two House committees.
Agreements on the language have now been reached, however.
Another bill by Micciche that affects business is his SB 63, expanding requirements for smoke-free environments in work places statewide.
Many municipalities have workplace smoke-free ordinances in place, which cover about half the state’s population, but there are many communities that do not have the local requirements.
Those would fall under SB 63 if it were to become law. Statewide bans on smoking do exist for hospitals and other public buildings but not places of work.
The bill passed the Senate 15-5 on March 27 and is in the House Community and Regional Affairs Committee. One hearing by that committee was held April 25.
One other bill of interest to business is SB 56, sponsored by Sen. Cathy Giessel, which would require heavy equipment manufacturers to assume certain costs incurred in servicing warranties in Alaska.
Equipment is often at remote locations and manufacturers have been reluctant to pay for getting replacements parts and supplies to remote sites, which puts the burden on contractors, supporters of the bill have said.
Not surprisingly, equipment manufacturers oppose the bill.
Giessel’s bill is in the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee, which held one hearing on March 9.
A House version introduced April 4 by Rep. Sam Kito, D-Juneau, HB 209, is in the House Labor and Commerce Committee, which he chairs. One hearing was held in that committee, on April 14.
Tim Bradner is co-publisher of Alaska Legislative Digest and a contributor to the Journal of Commerce. He can be reached at [email protected].