The law enforcement and firefighter survivor benefits bill, House Bill 4002, had a tortured life for a piece of legislation broadly supported by Alaskans. After the original bill was slow-walked and died at the end of this year’s extended legislative session, Gov. Bill Walker resurrected it for the Legislature’s first special session of the year. Once again, it died before final passage. This time, it won’t be on the docket for the upcoming special session that begins July 11 — it’s dead for good. In a year of many legislative disappointments, this still registers as a big one.
The survivor benefits bill arose out of concerns for the welfare of the families of law enforcement officers and firefighters who die in the line of duty. After several high-profile deaths of Alaska State Troopers — Tage Toll in 2013, followed by Scott Johnson and Gabe Rich in 2014 — Rep. Charisse Millett, R-Anchorage, sponsored a bill that would extend health care coverage to those families for years after the death. As the law currently stands, health benefits for surviving families expire quickly — in some cases, at the end of the month in which the death occurs.
At a time when families are still reeling from a recent loss, it’s shameful to add the headache and burden of seeking health care coverage to the list of items fallen officers’ and firefighters’ families are dealing with.
Those concerns didn’t appear to carry much weight with some members of the Legislature, however. Rep. Kurt Olson, R-Soldotna, held Rep. Millett’s bill in his committee for more than a year, saying he was concerned about the legality of giving benefits to some state employees’ families and not others.
Those concerns must have been addressed after a wave of publicity about the bill’s plight late last month, as the House finally passed the bill, albeit on the last day of the special session, directly before gaveling out. In effect, this killed the bill without either the House or Senate having full culpability: The House could claim that it did its part by passing the bill, while the Senate, which is required to end its session within 24 hours after the other chamber does so, could claim its members didn’t have time to parse the bill before a vote.
That the Legislature should give the bill such shabby treatment is inexcusable. Gov. Walker’s choice to only include measures targeting the state’s budget deficit in the second special session is understandable — the deficit is by far the most important item left unaddressed by the Legislature. But it will mean the survivors of troopers Toll, Johnson and Rich will be perilously close to losing their health care coverage by the time the Legislature comes back to session next January. Legislators have already disappointed the people by failing to deal with the survivor benefits bill for two years in a row; a third would be inexcusable.
— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,