Legislature to help families of slain police, firefighters

In 2011, Brandy Johnson spoke with her husband, Scott Johnson, about retiring.

He had 20 years in the state employee retirement system and was eligible for retirement, but in the end, the couple decided it would be better if he worked for five more years. That way, their family would be eligible for state-paid health insurance.

If things had gone as planned, Johnson would have retired in October.

Things did not go as planned.

On May 1, 2014, Alaska State Trooper Sgt. Scott Johnson was murdered in Tanana alongside his coworker, Trooper Gabe Rich.

“It was while trying to obtain this promised benefit goal that he was ambushed and killed,” Johnson told the Senate Finance Committee on April 5.

Special efforts by Gov. Sean Parnell and Gov. Bill Walker granted Brandy and her three children health insurance, and now the Alaska Legislature is about to regularize their situation and that of other families in their place.

“It’s been a long process,” Brandy said by phone on Thursday, “three years, and I knew better than to get my hopes up.”

On Wednesday, the Alaska Senate voted 19-0 to fix the problem encountered by Johnson and the families of other troopers, firefighters and police officers killed in the line of duty. Under House Bill 23, the state will create a fund to pay for the health insurance of slain public safety employees’ families.

Spouses without children will have insurance for 10 years. Those with children will have insurance until those children turn 26.

The bill, passed by the Senate, now returns to the House for a procedural vote. If the House approves of changes made to the bill by the Senate, it will head to Gov. Bill Walker for his signature and enactment.

The idea behind HB 23 has been in the works since 2015, when Rep. Charisse Millett, R-Anchorage, introduced the proposal.

It has always had broad support in the Legislature, but as Alaska’s financial crisis worsened, its progress slowed. It failed to pass in 2015 and 2016, even in the Legislature’s extended special sessions, and even with Walker’s support.

“As the fiscal crisis came to bear, I think the emphasis was more, ‘How much is this going to cost us fiscally?’ and less, how much is this going to cost us emotionally with the families?” Millett said on Wednesday in her Capitol office.

This year is different. After a task force analyzed the idea last year, the idea was reintroduced, passed through the House on March 13, and now it has passed the Senate. The details might have changed, but the goal remains consistent.

“The whole spirit of the bill is to give them that comfort, that sustainability of insurance that they would have had if their spouse had survived and gone into retirement,” Millett said.

According to the latest version of the bill, the state will buy insurance for the survivors of state public safety employees killed on the job, and for half the insurance of killed municipal public safety employees, if they come from a town with fewer than 10,000 people.

The insurance will be bought with a fund filled by private donations, muncipalities and the state. Alaskans can contribute their Permanent Fund Dividends to the effort.

Other municipalities can opt into the state system, or they can create their own system.

The City and Borough of Juneau and the City of Fairbanks each asked for that option.

Johnson said that when she was settling her husband’s affairs, figuring out their health insurance was one of her top priorities.

“When he was murdered, it seems kind of odd, but that was one of the first things we wanted to get in order, because that was the thing he was working for,” she said.

Now, she and others may have their answer.

“This is huge to me,” Johnson said. “This is what Scott was working for.”

Contact reporter James Brooks at james.k.brooks@juneauempire.com or call 419-7732.

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