Thursday was the second day of the special session called by Gov. Sean Parnell, with one bill moved forward while two others languished in committee.
The bill that advanced would boost the penalties for human trafficking, often connected with the sexual exploitation of children and teens. It's the agenda item with the clearest moral imperative of the three before the Legislature, so it quickly cleared the House and the Senate and is expected to arrive on the governor's desk by Monday. Parnell has said he would sign it.
The measure, as amended on Thursday, would make it a felony to sexually exploit or abuse a child under age 18. It would also extend tighter protections against trafficking for an additional two years.
As Sen. Lesil McGuire (R-Anchorage) put it, "We're...changing sex trafficking in the first degree -- we're raising up the age of the victim for this crime from 18 to 20."
The hope is that increasing the penalties for the trafficking of teens and children will have a deterrent effect on the crime in Alaska. The FBI has evidence of at least 23 cases of this kind of human trafficking within the state. They were cases where the girls -- many of them Yupik Eskimos -- were lured from tiny villages.
The problem with Alaska's existing trafficking statutes was that such a movement of exploited teens was formally considered trafficking only if the girls were moved out of the state. The new law redefines trafficking, so that even if a child or a teen is moved from a village to urban areas of the state, it will be considered a human-trafficking offense.
The law made one other change, which some senators were concerned about. It allowed live, closed-circuit video testimony in court in felony cases. The intention was to protect child and teenage witnesses, who might be intimidated in court after being sexually exploited, so they might testify without being in the same room as their accusers.
But Sen. Hollis French (D-Anchorage), a former prosecutor who supports the strengthened trafficking bill, warned that such a provision might be deemed unconstitutional. French warned that federal judges may consider this component of the bill a violation of the Bill of Rights' 6th Amendment, which grants defendants the right to confront their accusers.
Sen. Bill Wielechowski (D-Anchorage) also backs the bill but agrees with French. He said the video-testimony component of the bill, as it stands, could have unforeseen consequences, like allowing an accused trafficker greater access to expert witnesses who could testify by video.
Wielechowski also says personal details like a facial tic, a nervous look, or an anxious or sweaty witness might be harder for a jury to assess on closed-circuit TV than in person.
While Wielechowski and French voted in favor of the new human-trafficking bill, helping it pass the Senate on an unanimous 16-0 vote, they also warned the state to be prepared for court challenges to the video-testimony portion of the statute.
Meanwhile, another item on Parnell's special-session agenda -- oil tax reform -- received a cold reception in the Senate Resources Committee. Senators on the committee challenged Revenue Commissioner Bryan Butcher for offering them a tax revision which would save the oil companies $1.5 billion at next year's projected oil prices of $110 per barrel.
In addition, many of the senators were not convinced that the measure would do anything to boost North Slope production. They expressed concern that Revenue Department computer models, designed to assess the effects of Parnell's proposed tax cut, were apparently not shared with the Legislature -- a charge Butcher denied.
Some senators were also concerned that the governor's proposal to cut taxation offered big tax breaks for existing fields, as well as for new oil finds. Most senators would prefer to see existing fields get a more modest tax break, on the theory that existing fields are cheaper to drill. Senate Resources will continue to examine the issue Friday.
Plans to examine proposals for an in-state small-diameter natural gas pipeline, from either the North Slope or from Cook Inlet, will continue with more hearings next week.
Despite the progress with the human-trafficking bill, quick progress isn't foreseen for either oil taxes or an in-state gas line. They are not likely to be resolved soon, if they can be resolved at all.
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