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Julie Schwartz on May 18, 2009 - 12:22pm
Alaska's 2009 legislative session was full of strife between lawmakers and Gov. Sarah Palin, but resulted in little legislative action other than passage of the state budget. Much of this session was spent deliberating about what to do with the budget, the federal economic stimulus plan and funding. In addition, a significant amount of time was consumed over the appointment, and subsequent legislative vote to reject, Wayne Anthony Ross for Attorney General. According to Legislative Research Services, it was the first time in state history that a head of a state agency has failed to be confirmed by the Legislature. When the legislative session adjourned, only an approximate 62 bills and 29 resolutions were approved by both the Alaska House and Senate.
Stimulus Debate: Initially, Gov. Palin said she would accept only about two-thirds of the $930 million of stimulus funds available to Alaska, calling the stimulus package "an unsustainable, debt-ridden package of funds," and expressing concerns about the state having to finance programs and projects created by the stimulus funds after the federal money ran out. After holding public hearings, state lawmakers voted to request nearly all the ARRA funds available to Alaska.
While Gov. Palin still has veto power, she has now indicated that she will sign bills accepting most of the federal stimulus funds available to the state, except for the nearly $29 million available for a State Energy Program due to her concerns about adopting a statewide energy code. Deborah Williams with Alaska Conservation Solutions stated, "[s]he has not yet actually vetoed this provision, and so we sincerely hope she will reconsider given the importance of this money to advance state energy efficiency and renewable energy programs." Among the stimulus funds Palin has directed her agencies to seek are $264 million for transportation projects, $130 million for Medicaid, and $171 for education.
Aside from the stimulus money, legislators completed work on a $9.7 billion operating budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1st and approved a $1.8 billion capital budget for 2010. According to House Speaker Mike Chenault, because of declining oil revenue, this year's budget negotiations were more difficult than in past years and hard choices needed to be made.
Overall the legislative session was unproductive - with some legislators stating that the 90 day short session made it too hard to study bills and move them through the committee process.
Despite the lack of legislative action, a couple of positive initiatives passed the legislature and are now on the Governor's desk:
- The Legislature approved SB 1 which, if enacted, will boost Alaska’s minimum wage. Under the bill, Alaska's minimum wage would increase from $7.15 an hour to 50 cents above the federal minimum wage on January 1, 2010. In addition, the bill states that from now on the Alaska minimum wage will always be no less than 50 cents an hour more than the federal minimum wage. Five House Democrats voted against the bill, saying it simply didn’t do enough for the state’s lowest-paid workers.
- SB 133, which passed the legislature, if enacted will start the process of replacing paper records on prescription information, laboratory results and other medical records with an electronic health information exchange system. According to the bill's sponsor Sen. Joe Paskvan, the system would electronically link labs, clinics, pharmacies and hospitals and reduce the risk of drug interactions, misdiagnoses, and administrative costs. A real motivating force behind the legislation was the availability of federal funds to help cover initiation costs. However, it is unclear if Palin will be requesting this pot of stimulus money.
- HB 26 continues preventive maintenance in the Medicaid adult dental program. In 2006, the Legislature changed the adult dental program in Medicaid from treating only “acute infection and pain” to a more comprehensive program that covers preventative and restorative care. The 2009 legislation repeals the previous version's sunset provision, making the current program permanent.
- The Legislature approved the Governor’s request for $2 million to fund a pilot program of public preschools operated by school districts. The pilot has four purposes: to serve children who are not now being served by preschools; to help parents who want more guidance in educating their young children at home; to form partnerships that would strengthen existing providers; and to try out different ways of achieving quality care.
Some bad bills were thwarted:
- This year's prominent abortion measure, HB 35, which if passed would have required minors to gain parental consent before seeking an abortion, faltered. Some critics of the bill worried that it gave control of children over to parents, even abusive ones. In an effort to bypass the legislature, Gov. Palin is backing a ballot measure that would make it illegal for teenagers to get an abortion without telling their parents.
- HB 9, sponsored by Mike Chenault, would have reinstated the death penalty in Alaska, but it did not pass this session.
- SB 87 would have increased Denali Kid Care coverage for children and pregnant women to 200% of the federal poverty level. In addition, the bill would have created a new program to cover all uninsured children between 200% and 350% of the federal poverty level. For this expanded group of children the bill established a sliding scale monthly premium, plus co-payments for families above 250% of the federal poverty level.
- HB 68 would have made sales of and offers to sell certain energy resources by a refiner at exorbitant or excessive prices an unlawful act under the Alaska Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Act.
- While legislators approved about $100 million for renewable energy projects across Alaska, as well as $9 million for a low-income heating assistance program and roughly $7 million for in-state natural gas development, little was accomplished to set state policy and define a plan for bridging high fuel costs and a future of stable, alternative fuels. While special committees addressed energy and traveled to several communities seeking first-hand input on a statewide energy plan, no final document emerged this year. However, energy and resources committees plan to work in the interim on an energy policy.
- HB 126 and SB 105, which aimed to enact a series of reforms such as extending housing assistance for young people coming out of foster care and providing more education assistance for foster children, did not get voted on this session.
Alaska editorial: 2009 Legislative session: The good, bad and so-so
Lawmakers call for minimum wage hike
Lawmakers move forward with stimulus funds
Session adjourns with bills held over
State lawmakers await possible Palin vetoes on bills