Crime, PFD remain big legislative tension points 5 days from end of session

Kenny Knutson / KTUU
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - The amount set for the 2019 Permanent Fund Dividend and a criminal justice reform package are the two biggest points of tension in the Legislature five days out from the end of the regular Legislative session.

The House majority caucus spoke to media Friday morning saying a balance needed to be struck between the PFD and delivering state services.

“In a perfect world, all of us would support as large a dividend as possible,” said House Speaker Rep. Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham. “What we’ve heard from thousands of Alaskans is that it’s important to keep schools open, troopers on the beat, snow plows in the winter need to operate.”

The Senate approved a roughly $3,000 dividend in its budget, but the House majority believes the state’s fiscal situation makes a full statutory PFD impractical.

“It’s not sustainable, the money is not there for that,” said Rep. Neal Foster, D-Nome, the co-chair of the House Finance Committee. “So it’s just not likely that we’re going to go there.”

The House did not include a PFD figure in its operating budget, wanting to debate the dividend separately.

A conference committee is now tasked with working out the differences between the House and Senate budgets, meaning a PFD should theoretically be up for debate soon. On the committee, three members from the House and three from the Senate will work together to create a single budget document that can pass through the Legislature.

Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, said it doesn’t appear that there will be agreement in the conference committee on a $3,000 dividend.

“We (would) need to come up with a compromise dividend that the Legislature has majority support for and the governor can sign,” he said.

The governor has been clear in his belief that the statutory formula setting the PFD should be followed unless it is changed by a vote of the people. He has promised to veto the budget or use his line-item veto power to deliver a full dividend.

If the PFD figure is not debated in the conference committee, separate legislation may be required to address it.

Crime package
The House majority passed House Bill 49 Wednesday that members say would repeal and replace negative portions of Senate Bill 91 still in effect.

The wide-ranging omnibus bill increases certain sentencing ranges and makes penalties for possession of drugs harsher with the option for judges to order a person into treatment.

“We are giving people hard consequences but giving people the chance to get out the cycle of addiction,” said Rep. Chuck Kopp, R-Anchorage.

The House majority plans to work on a package that would increase drug treatment options for people both inside and outside the prison system.

The governor had signaled on Monday that he could accept the version of the crime legislation sent to the House floor before amendments were considered. After the bill was voted out of the House, his office did not say whether the governor would sign the bill as written.

“While the bill that passed the House contains elements of the Governor’s four bills, more work is needed to provide law enforcement and prosecutors stronger tools to keep Alaskans safe and criminals behind bars.” said the governor’s press secretary Matt Shuckerow in a statement.

The governor will now work with the Senate and House leadership “to secure final passage of a comprehensive crime package that most effectively repeals and replaces SB 91 and truly puts Alaskans’ public safety first,” according to Shuckerow.

The House minority and some Senate majority members have come out strongly against the current version of HB 49 saying it doesn’t do enough to improve public safety.

Stedman said Friday that crime had to be solved as it spilled across the state. He said the costs of increasing resources was not important.

“I don’t care how many prosecutors we need, how many judges we need, I don’t care if we have to have a few people exported out of state, we need to get this situation under control ASAP,” he said.

After saying the House Finance Committee version of HB 49 would repeal and replace the negative parts of SB 91 still in effect, John Skidmore, the head of the criminal division at the Department of Law, said HB 49 as it sits in the Senate Finance Committee, no longer does that.

He said two main issues of concern are the decisions by the House to maintain caps for time spent behind bars for technical violations of parole, and which types of offenders would be eligible for discretionary parole.

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