JUNEAU — The Alaska Senate set aside constitutional concerns and approved a crime bill Friday, but it sidestepped taxes when ending the special legislative session.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska warned lawmakers that a provision of the crime bill, passed by the House this week, would make presumptive sentence ranges for first-time Class C and Class B felonies the same.
The group said this would violate due process requirements. The ACLU of Alaska said the concept of graduated offenses is to ensure more serious crimes are sentenced more harshly. Class C felonies are a lesser class of felony.
The organization warned of legal action if the provision were adopted.
The bill, SB54, was prompted by public outcry over crime and intended to address concerns that arose from a criminal justice overhaul passed by lawmakers last year.
The Senate passed its own version of SB54 earlier this year but on Friday voted narrowly to adopt the House version, which Senate President Pete Kelly said was tougher on crime.
Kelly, a Fairbanks Republican, said if senators want to be tougher on crime they are “almost duty bound” to vote to accept the House version.
There may be a constitutional issue, “but it doesn’t take the whole bill out,” he said. “It only takes that section and puts it in question. We may win or we may lose in a court fight on that.”
Sen. John Coghill, who earlier this week said he would recommend a conference committee on the bill, voted to support the House version.
Gov. Bill Walker, who was in China this week, said in a statement sent to media Friday night that the crime bill returns “meaningful tools” to law enforcement and judges. “However, our work on criminal justice is not yet over, and SB 54 as amended contains some issues that must be further addressed by the Legislature,” the statement said.
House Speaker Bryce Edgmon called the Senate’s actions “an abdication of their responsibilities.”
“They allowed a constitutionally flawed bill to be sent to the governor and they worsened the ongoing recession and fiscal crisis by refusing to even consider a new revenue proposal,” he said in a statement.
Edgmon, a Dillingham Democrat, told reporters the potential legal issues with the bill came to light after the House passed it and could have been fixed in a matter of days by working with senators.
He said a decision on next steps had not been made. The House could continue to meet but could not force the Senate to do any more, he said.
During the special session, which began Oct. 23, the Republican-led Senate showed little interest in the other issue on the agenda — a wage tax proposed by the governor to help address a multibillion-dollar state budget deficit that has persisted amid low oil prices.
“I am deeply saddened that the Senate has decided to again ignore Alaska’s fiscal crisis,” Walker’s statement read. “We need a complete fiscal plan to support prosecutors and police, and to pay for some of the policy decisions made in this amended version of SB 54.”