Edgmon to gavel in special session next Monday
Gov. Bill Walker called the state's lawmakers back to another 30-day special session beginning Oct. 23. Walker has asked them to take up Senate Bill 54, which addresses reforms to Senate Bill 91, and his proposal for a flat payroll tax that could raise $300 million annually.
House Speaker Bryce Edgmon sat down with KDLG Monday to discuss the special session and other topics. Neither he nor his colleagues, he said, are particularly thrilled to be heading down to Juneau for work this fall.
"But at the same time, we're at a really critical period in Alaska's history. We have fiscal challenges that are very serious, not to mention a crime bill that has been picking up a lot of momentum in the last several weeks," he said.
Juneau will be where the House gavels in to meet. Edgmon denied requests from some Anchorage-area representatives to hold House hearings in the state's biggest city.
"It's more expensive to hold it in Anchorage, where we'd have to rent a facility, we have to bring all the personnel, bring up all the audio equipment, bring up everything that is intact and in place in Juneau. And furthermore, Gavel to Gavel, the statewide TV network that broadcasts the Legislative hearings is situated in Juneau. It will not move to Anchorage."
Senate Bill 54 tweaks rather than scraps the state's recent comprehensive criminal justice reforms known as SB 91. One key provision would add up to one year of jail time for first time Class C felony convictions; SB 91 had changed that guideline from up to two years in jail to probation only. Up to five days would also be added for violating conditions of release, and SB 54 will give judges discretion to issue some jail time to those convicted of repeat theft offenses.
A public outcry against the low-to-no consequences for crimes tied to drug abuse and petty theft has built bipartisan support to fix SB 91, said Edgmon. He would like to see the majority of SB 91 stay in place long enough to measure its effects on keeping Alaskans from becoming career criminals.
"It's more about reform, about dealing with community supervision, and really an attempt to reduce the recidivism rate," said Edgmon, pointing out that two-thirds of Alaska inmates released will go back to jail within three years of being released. "We're spending a ton of money on the criminal justice system in an era when we're cutting budgets, and we're seeing basically a criminal justice system that's not working as well as it should be."
Also at stake is Walker's proposal for a flat 1.5 percent payroll tax, the Governor's latest iteration of a new tax to address the state's budget gap. The individual burden would be capped at $2,200 or twice the previous year's PFD, whichever is higher, and would bring in $300 to $325 million annually. Walker says some 15 percent of the revenues would come from non-resident workers.
As to the likelihood of that passing, Edgmon was less straightforward. The House majority, a coalition of mostly Democrats, has prioritized closing the budget gap by restructuring the Permanent Fund, adding an income tax, and raising taxes on oil and gas producers to balance smaller budget cuts than are preferred in the Republican-led Senate.
"The House has taken action," said Edgmon. "We have put a full fiscal plan forward, made difficult votes and tough decisions, and now we need the Senate to step up. It's my hope that with the passage of a few months since we've been down to Juneau that things have changed, and we will get all that taken care of, or at least largely taken care of, in the upcoming month."
After filling the "$3 billion gap with savings" during the previous session, Edgmon says the less than $2 billion in savings left will not provide lawmakers cover to do nothing for much longer. The projected deficit for the next fiscal year is between $2.5 and $3 billion, he said.
Will Republicans hold firm against new taxes and push Walker into an election year as the governor who drained the state's savings accounts and halved Alaskans' PFD checks?
Politics "is always part of the picture, of course, but I sure hope that's not the case," said the House Speaker. He hopes legislators will take up some heavy lifting and "tough choices" before the start of an election year.
Walker recently came out opposed to Pebble Mine, issuing a statement timed to take the wind out of the company's sails the day before they began introducing a smaller concept for the project. Edgmon, who is also up for reelection next year, thinks Walker made the right move, and he himself has recently been more vocally opposed to Pebble than in the past. He spoke of his "profound disappointment" that EPA had backed off its preemptive restrictions at the Dillingham EPA hearing this month.
"I think the Pebble issue, if it already hasn't eclipsed ANWR as the largest, most controversial resource development issue in Alaska, is well on its way," he said. His Bristol Bay constituents "by and large" oppose the project, though he acknowledged some, especially around Iliamna Lake, "view it a little less skeptically." The opposition will continue to grow, because "you simply can't put a large-scale mine in the middle of sensitive habitat areas and expect all to be well, and both sides to coexist as though nothing had taken place."
He supports the Stand for Salmon initiative, will ask the governor not to appeal a judge's ruling that it can appear on the ballot, and will vote for it if it does.
"I think there is a bit of an awakening going on in the state," Edgmon said of the need to update laws protecting fish habitat. "It's not that any of us, myself included, are anti- pro-development." Alaska is built on "resource development," he said, but it's time and there is room to put stronger protections in place.
On another piece of sensitive habitat, however, Edgmon is urging development to get underway. He strongly backs building a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to connect King Cove residents to the large airfield in Cold Bay. Enabling legislation he sponsored in 2010 passed 60-0 in Juneau, and another show of support earlier this year passed with strong numbers too.
Environmental groups despise this 11-mile single-lane gravel road, which they believe will threaten important nesting habitat. Quietly, environmentalists and Fish and Wildlife officials say the more important issue at stake is allowing any encroachment in a federally-designated Wilderness Area, which is supposed to stand as America's most protected lands.
"I don't see it that way, I think most people don't see it that way. Fact of the matter is there are plenty of roads in the area that are already in place, most of them predating World War II," Edgmon said. "And the sensitive habitat, and human traffic and region as a whole have been able to find an equilibrium where things have been able to coexist in a way that everyone wins," said Edgmon.
"I think the road can be built, I think it will be built, and I think in time it will prove that it was the right thing to do."