Last week, the Alaska Senate passed an update to criminal justice reform legislation — then adjourned and headed home. The action prompted criticism from the House majority coalition and the governor, with House Speaker Bryce Edgmon calling the Senate’s action “an abdication of their responsibilities.”
We hope the speaker is aware of the irony in that statement. After all, the crime legislation passed during the most recent special session — which the House continues to drag out — was passed by the Senate back in April, during the regular session.
The House and Gov. Bill Walker have two gripes with the Senate. The first is that the version of Senate Bill 54 passed by the House contains a potential constitutional issue, which the Senate opted not to address. The measure would make presumptive sentence ranges for first-time Class C and Class B felonies the same, something that could potentially violate due process requirements.
The other complaint is that the Senate did not take any meaningful action on Gov. Walker’s proposed employment tax — though that should not have come as a surprise, as the Senate majority has adamantly opposed a new broad-based tax.
Edgmon and Walker both criticized the Senate for, as the Speaker phrased it, worsening “the ongoing recession and fiscal crisis by refusing to even consider a new revenue proposal.”
Again, we hope the speaker is aware of the irony in that statement. The proposed payroll tax would eventually collect $300 million to $325 million a year — putting a very small dent in a budget deficit that will be somewhere in the neighborhood of $2.7 billion. Lawmakers from the Senate and House have pointed to use of a portion of the earnings of the Alaska Permanent Fund as the biggest part of a budget solution, and the measure on the table to do that, SB 26, would cut the deficit by about $1.8 billion. However, the House and Senate passed differing versions of the bill — the House version requires a broad-based tax be enacted for SB 26 to take effect — and a compromise bill never made it to the governor.
The issues with SB 54 can be fixed as soon as the next regular session starts — which at this point, is less than two months away.
As for worsening the fiscal crisis, the governor’s payroll tax would cover roughly 10 percent of the budget deficit, maybe a little bit more. Meanwhile, the measure that would address two-thirds of the shortfall has been ignored — or conveniently forgotten. Yet the House wants to pin the blame on the Senate for that, too.
The current special session hits its 30-day limit on Tuesday, and the Legislature’s next regular session starts on Jan. 16, 2018. Lawmakers know what needs to be done. Failure to do so will truly be an abdication of responsibility.