Bills filed ahead of Alaska legislative session seek changes to health care, social justice

Marriage equality, abortion, Juneteenth and contraception are subjects of prefiled legislation

By: - January 10, 2023 5:00 am

The House floor on April 22, 2022, in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney)

Several bills prefiled for the Alaska Legislative session that starts next week focus on health care and social justice issues, like abortion, access to contraceptives and marriage equality – bills and resolutions the Legislature has seen before.

Marriage equality guarantee proposed

House Joint Resolution 1 seeks to amend the Alaska Constitution by repealing Article 1, section 25, which says, “To be valid or recognized in this State, a marriage may exist only between one man and one woman.” 

I'm positive it would be markedly different. Whether 51% would approve the resolution, I don't know.

– Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, on how Alaskans would vote on same sex marriage compared to 1998

Because it’s a change to the state constitution, two-thirds of each house of the Legislature would need to vote in favor of putting the proposed amendment on a ballot and then a majority of the votes would need to cast in favor for the amendment to go through. Article 1, section 25, was itself a constitutional amendment, which voters passed 68% to 32% in 1998. 

Bill sponsor Rep. Andy Josephson, an Anchorage Democrat, said he thinks the result would be different than in 1998: “I’m positive it would be markedly different. Whether 51% would approve the resolution, I don’t know.” 

Despite what Alaska’s constitution says, same sex marriage has been legal in the state since 2014, when a federal judge overturned Alaska’s ban. The following year, in Obergefell v. Hodges, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marriage. 

But, in a concurring opinion overturning Roe v. Wade, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that the court should reconsider other precedents, like protection of same-sex marriage.   

“Now that Obergefell has been expressly threatened by Justice Thomas, we need to go back and look at our own constitution,” Josephson said. 

Last year, President Joe Biden signed into law the Respect for Marriage Act, which ensures same-sex and interracial marriages that have already occurred would continue to be recognized even if the U.S. Supreme Court were to overturn the cases legalizing those unions. Despite this protection, if the court were to make this move, the issue would return to the states.

Josephson first introduced this legislation in 2015 and again in 2017. In both cases, the bill never got any committee hearings. “It went nowhere,” he said. 

And Josephson is not confident it’ll get any committee hearings this go-around either, but “you just don’t know until you try.” Ideally, he’d like for it to reach the floor, even if it can’t get all the needed votes. “If I can only get 24 votes, then so be it; let’s have the debate.” 

Resolution would say abortion isn’t a constitutional right

Palmer Republican Sen. Shelley Hughes has prefiled Senate Joint Resolution 2, which proposes amending the state constitution to add a new section that says, “To protect human life, nothing in this constitution may be construed to secure or protect a right to an abortion or require the State to fund an abortion.” 

Currently, the right to have an abortion in Alaska is protected under the Alaska Constitution’s privacy provision. The state Supreme Court has ruled that Medicaid must cover medically necessary abortions, and has upheld other abortion rights, based on its interpretation of the constitution, even when the Legislature or voters wanted to limit it. 

SJR 2 is the same legislation Hughes has sponsored before, most recently in 2021. SJR 4 passed out of two committees and didn’t go any further. But, with the U.S. Supreme Court in June ending the federal right to abortion and putting access to it in the hands of states, there is renewed interest to relook at the issue in Alaska. This past November, though, voters handily rejected holding a constitutional convention, which could have challenged Alaska’s abortion rights. 

Hughes did not reply to requests for an interview, but a 2021 sponsor statement said the constitutional amendment would “allow Alaskans to decide what kind of policy we want in regard to abortion in our state.” 

Last week, members of the House and Senate said abortion-related legislation is unlikely to advance due to the bipartisan supermajority in the Senate, plus close margins in the House. 

The same sentiment extends to other controversial legislations. Rep. Tom McKay (R – Anchorage) prefiled House Bill 27, which aims to prohibit transgender girls from competing in girls sports. He introduced the same legislation last year, which didn’t get any committee hearings. The Senate version of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Hughes, did though. It made it to the Senate floor before getting tabled a day before the session ended, effectively killing the bill.   

Plan would allow Alaska to join other states celebrating Juneteenth holiday

Anchorage Democrat Sen. Elvi Gray-Jackson is again hoping to make June 19 a legal state holiday in her prefiled Senate Bill 22. 

“It’s simply the right thing to do and I got even more motivated when it became a federal holiday,” Gray-Jackson said. Juneteenth, which commemorates the end of slavery in the U.S., became an official federal holiday in 2021. 

If passed, the bill would add June 19 as a paid state holiday alongside 11 other state holidays, including Independence Day. About half the states in the country recognize Juneteenth as a legal state holiday. 

When Gray-Jackson introduced the bill in 2021, it picked up cosponsors Sens. Scott Kawasaki, Tom Begich and Lyman Hoffman. Gray-Jackson’s chief of staff Besse Odom is confident it will have even more support this year and move forward. 

“We don’t see this as being a divisive issue,” Odom said. “The senator believes that we should be celebrating the liberation of all people who are living in America, specifically those whose ancestors have struggled and have endured the terrible legacy of slavery.” 

Proposal would expand access to contraceptives

Now a senator, Anchorage Democrat Matt Claman has again filed a bill that would mandate insurance companies cover up to a year’s worth of birth control at a time. Currently, insurance providers are allowed to limit how much they’re willing to cover. 

“It’s very important in terms of public health,” Claman said. “It’s something that I believe very strongly in and that’s why I keep introducing it. And I hear from not only women throughout the community but women in my own family who say this is really important.” 

Rep.-elect Ashley Carrick of Fairbanks has prefiled a similar bill in the House, known as a companion bill. 

“The main reason that I wanted to carry this bill is Fairbanks is a hub community for so many rural Alaskan communities. And, primarily, this is a problem for women in rural Alaska who maybe only get into town to see a provider once a year and don’t have the luxury to go see a doctor multiple times in the same year,” she said. “The main goal ultimately is to get contraceptives into the hands of people who want contraceptives.”

GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Lisa Phu
Lisa Phu

Lisa Phu covers justice, education, and culture for the Alaska Beacon. Previously, she spent eight years as an award-winning journalist, reporting for the Juneau Empire, KTOO Public Media, KSTK, and Wrangell Sentinel. She's also been Public Information Officer for the City and Borough of Juneau, lead facilitator for StoryCorps Alaska based in Utqiagvik, and a teacher in Tanzania and Bhutan. Originally from New York, Lisa is a first generation Chinese American and a mom of two young daughters. She can be contacted at [email protected]

MORE FROM AUTHOR