Crime and taxes are very much on the minds of Kenai Peninsula residents as the Legislature gears up for its fourth special session this year.
Gov. Bill Walker has called the Legislature back to Juneau to deal with two bills — one that would establish a statewide employment tax and another that would tweak the state’s criminal justice system, recently overhauled by Senate Bill 91. The central Kenai Peninsula delegation — Rep. Gary Knopp, R-Kenai, Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, and Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna — aren’t thrilled about having to go back to Juneau so soon. After all, they just finished their third special session in July, having been in Juneau since January.
Micciche, who served as Senate Majority Leader this year, said the Senate doesn’t plan to stay in Juneau long this time.
“Our request to the governor’s office from the Senate Majority was that we spend this fall wisely and that we gather in Anchorage outside of session and have worksessions where the Democrat-led House can talk about why they think we need so much more money and the Senate can talk about why we believe that we can contain costs and have less need for additional revenue,” Micciche said. “Instead, (Walker) dropped another tax. It’s not going to bring people together, it’s … going to keep people apart.”
Chenault, who served as House Minority Whip this session after the Republican majority was displaced by a bipartisan caucus, said he’s not sure how much the Legislature will accomplish this session. The governor’s proposed tax bill has not gained much support among either representatives or senators, but the crime reform bill — SB 54 — was already passed by the Senate and Chenault said he recognized the need for improvements to the changes made with SB 91.
SB 91 was a broad bill that changed many of the punishments for low-level crimes as part of a national push to decrease prison populations. It also increased the minimum sentencing requirement for serious crimes like murder, among other changes. However, some of the effects were unforeseen, taking away tools law enforcement officers needed to deter certain kinds of crime, Micciche said.
One of the primary fixes in SB 54, co-sponsored by Micciche and Sen. John Coghill, R-Fairbanks, would be to make class C felonies eligible for jail time again. SB 91 set the presumptive sentencing range for Class C felonies, which include crimes like theft and assault in the third degree, at zero days. The version of SB 54 passed by the Senate in April would set a presumptive range for a first-time offender at zero to one year, excluding specific exceptions for other convictions.
Chenault noted that SB 91 was passed as a response to an increase in crime at the beginning of the 2010s but was not responsible for the uptick in the crime rate.
“I think we all knew that it wasn’t a perfect bill because there is no such thing, but we needed to try something,” Chenault said. “We had an escalating rate of people in prisons and rising costs of those, and we were looking at ways other states had done to try to limit some of those.”
Attendees at the forum repeatedly expressed anger about the amount of crime on the peninsula, particularly property crime by repeat offenders. Peninsula Crimestoppers board member Wayne Pattison said at the meeting that he was concerned about the cost to law enforcement.
“The cost of this is something I think you all need to look at, because those troopers got enough to do without catching the same person three times a week,” he said.
Crime driven by drug addiction also came up repeatedly as a concern. Sharon Brower of Nikiski said she was concerned about the rehabilitation facilities available for those who emerge from jail and to provide more drug treatment for current inmates. She said she supported an income tax to help pay for it.
“We don’t have any facilities,” she said. “We don’t have near enough facilities, and they cost money and those folks that are coming out of prison don’t have any money, don’t have any insurance, frequently don’t have any help. … Let’s do something other than putting them in jail and throwing away the key. Let’s get some treatment while they’re in jail too.”
Micciche said one of his primary goals for reforming SB 91 would be to include mandatory drug treatment as part of the sentence for repeat offenders with drug-related crimes. Not all the provisions of SB 91 were bad, he said, but the Legislature has to find a balance between reducing the prison population and deterring crime.
“Bad people should just be in prison if they’re not going to turn their lives around, but there are a lot of people kind of caught in the middle,” he said.
Walker’s proposed wage tax is the latest of a long list of ideas to shore up the state’s remaining budget gap, following a recommended income tax and motor fuel tax. The proposed tax, a 1.5 percent payroll tax up to $2,200, would generate an estimated $320 million upon full implementation in fiscal year 2020, according to a fiscal note attached to the proposed legislation. Revenue in fiscal year 2019 would likely be about half that because it wouldn’t take effect until the middle of the fiscal year, according to the fiscal note.
Chenault said he wasn’t much in favor of the payroll tax either but was willing to entertain public opinion and discussion on it.
“I don’t know if it’s right or wrong, but I’m willing to talk about it,” he said. “Is that the direction that we need to be going? We’re here to get that input from you folks to try to make a decision based on what our constituents would like to see.”
Few people at the meeting Wednesday had anything positive to say about the payroll tax, but most had other opinions to offer about the state’s fiscal crisis. The crowd seemed divided on Walker and the Legislature’s decisions to appropriate half the amount of the Permanent Fund Dividend this year to pay for state government, with half in favor of using it instead of taxes and the other half adamantly against it.
Former assembly member Stan Welles offered support for using the Permanent Fund Dividend to pay for government and offered conditional support for an income tax over a sales tax as a way to deal with the budget deficit sooner than later.
“We tend to get spoiled with the idea that we have the right to (the Permanent Fund dividend),” he said. “That was a rainy day fund and today’s a rainy day. I am tired to kicking the budget issue down the road … my choice recognizing that we can’t cut our way out of this is an income tax, but my condition on the income tax is that I want to see a sunset clause on it.”
Several attendees got into a near shouting match about the original intent of the Permanent Fund earnings, with one saying it was inappropriate for the state to use it to pay for the government and another contesting that it was the original purpose.
Micciche said his office would look into hosting another community meeting in the future about structured draws from the earnings of the Permanent Fund to pay for government, known as the Percent of Market Value plan.
The Legislature reconvenes Oct. 23.
Reach Elizabeth Earl at firstname.lastname@example.org.