Alaska legislators say abortion-related legislation is unlikely to advance in the Capitol this year
A bipartisan supermajority in the Senate, plus close margins in the House, means controversial bills on social issues will face major obstacles
The Alaska State Capitol is seen on Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022, in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
Two weeks before the Alaska Legislature convenes in Juneau, members of the state House and Senate say they don’t expect much work this year on legislation involving controversial social issues like abortion and transgender rights.
“I think it’s safe to say that the social issues along those lines probably will not get a lot of movement,” said Rep. Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla.
Bills involving those topics will be introduced as soon as Monday, the first day that legislation prefiled ahead of the legislative session will be revealed to the public.
But with a bipartisan supermajority in control of the Senate and tight margins expected in the House, lawmakers say they don’t expect controversial bills to advance because Democrats will be positioned to block conservative legislation and Republicans will be able to block progressive items.
Rep. DeLena Johnson, R-Palmer, supports restrictions on abortion. She said she and other lawmakers have the right to introduce bills dealing with social issues, but she’s also pragmatic.
“The Dobbs decision is on everybody’s minds — has been nationwide,” she said of the U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing states to ban abortion.
“Here in Alaska, I don’t think there’s any exception. There’s going to be interest in what people are going to do, but given our setup, I don’t think that’s going to happen. Nothing’s going to happen with that,” she said.
Anything that becomes law will require compromise and bipartisan support, as well as the consent of Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy. That can be tough to find: In the 32nd Legislature, 686 bills were introduced but only 111 became law.
Abortion-related legislation faces a particularly high hurdle here because the Alaska Supreme Court has ruled that abortion access is protected by the privacy clause of the Alaska Constitution. Restricting abortion would require a new ruling from the court or a constitutional amendment. Dunleavy has said he will propose such an amendment, but passage requires a supermajority in the House and Senate.
“I can’t see anything too radical — either left or right — getting by the Senate, and if there’s a level of bipartisanship in the House organization, that’s just another roadblock for legislation that’s controversial,” said Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan.
Senate President Gary Stevens said members of the 17-person Senate supermajority will meet starting Thursday in Girdwood to begin considering their legislative priorities.
That work will continue through the start of the session on Jan. 17, he said.
“It’s going to be pretty much moderate issues that we deal with. No extreme issues, I wouldn’t think,” he said.
Stevens said his top priorities are avoiding overspending from the Alaska Permanent Fund and preventing the implementation of an income tax or a sales tax.
Beyond that, he said, he expects education funding, food security and state employee retirement to be big issues.
Those priorities are in line with those voiced by members of the Alaska House. Rep.-elect Dan Saddler, R-Eagle River, is returning to the House after serving four terms in the 2010s.
“The budget’s going to be big, the dividend’s going to be big again,” he said of items that will consume legislative time.
“You’ve seen a real push among the chattering classes about the need for education funding increases. Inflation is a much larger factor in Alaska state finances than it has been for the previous 20 years,” he said.
Alaska ended its pension program for new state employees in 2006, but the state has struggled to retain and recruit employees in recent years, and there is a push to revive a pension plan to encourage hiring.
A pension program for public safety workers passed the House last year but died in the Senate, and many lawmakers anticipate a revived push this year.
Rep.-elect Rebecca Himschoot, an elementary teacher from Sitka, is a nonpartisan first-term lawmaker who will be sworn into the House on the 17th.
“Defined benefits fits into any conversation I’m going to have about a state that provides the workforce and the services that community members need to thrive,” she said.
Rep. Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, said that defined benefits — the formal name for a pension plan — “needs to be and will be pushed forward in the House this time around.”
He said the “holy grail” issue for state lawmakers is agreement on a long-term fiscal plan, a theme echoed by other members of the House.
In 2021, a bicameral, bipartisan working group drafted the framework for a fiscal plan, which included a revised state spending cap, new formula for Permanent Fund dividend payments, budget cuts and new revenue.
Last year, lawmakers were unable to agree on the precise structure of any piece of a plan, and none passed into law.
The Dunleavy administration is expected to unveil a carbon-monetization program later this month, which could satisfy the call for new revenue, but multiple legislators said any idea along those lines is likely to take more than one year.
“It takes a while for people to learn about new ideas,” Johnson said.
She suggested the House Ways and Means Committee could be tasked with working on a fiscal plan, while Himschoot speculated that a special session focused on long-term fiscal issues might be warranted.
In either case, lawmakers believe it won’t be easy or quick to resolve this year’s session, even if social issues are off the table.
In 2017, the first year of the 30th Legislature, lawmakers needed four special sessions. Two years later, in the first year of the 31st Legislature, they needed two special sessions. In 2021, the first year of the 32nd Legislature, they needed four.
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