It’s now been two weeks since lawmakers gaveled into a fourth special session in Juneau. So far, changes to state crime law have taken center stage-- and the House worked well into the night Monday to pass Senate Bill 54, a fix to the controversial Senate Bill 91. 

Monday marked the third day the Alaska House worked on floor amendments to Senate Bill 54, passing the measure with their 28 changes around 1 a.m. Tuesday.

The Senate passed SB54 in its original form back in April. At the time, some of the most significant provisions included:

  • Increasing penalties for low-level theft after a second offense
  • Creating harsher punishments for violating a judge’s conditions for release
  • Reinstating mandatory probation for sex offenders
  • Including up to a year of jail time for first-time class c felonies, like car theft

The House added to the bill by:

  • Requiring an intoxicated person be held in prison until they are no longer intoxicated or released to a responsible adult.
  • Establishing potential jail time for a first-time petty theft, like shoplifting
  • Increasing jail time to up to two years for a first-time class C felony
  • Creating a stricter law around driving a stolen car, also known as joyriding, to match a measure passed by the Anchorage Assembly.

“That would make it easier to prosecute joy riders, adopting the same standard that the Municipality of Anchorage has, saying if you ride in a car, that you should have and negligently didn’t ask questions about it, you are liable for joyriding charges as well,” said Rep. Dan Saddler (R-Eagle River) who sponsored the joyriding amendment.

At this point— it’s unclear what the House changes will mean for the state budget, but an estimate from the House Finance Committee earlier this session projected a $4 million increase to costs each year because of longer prison sentences. Given the state’s multi-billion dollar budget gap, that price tag has even some lawmakers who support the bill concerned.

“I really am concerned that that increase in jail time is going to result in actually increased Corrections costs to no meaningful improvement in public safety and, more important, taking that resource away from prosecutors and Troopers, which is where we really want to send that money,” said Rep. Matt Claman (D-Anchorage), Chair of the Judiciary Committee. “We want to be tough on crime, smart on spending and improve public safety.”

After two committees and three days on the House floor, the criminal justice reform bill is now back in the Senate’s court. The Senate must now concur with the House's changes before the bill heads to Governor Bill Walker's desk for signing. 

Tuesday, Governor Walker released the following statement regarding SB54's passing the House:

I thank the House for moving to respond to Alaskans’ concerns about public safety by passing Senate Bill 54. SB 54 – combined with a complete fiscal plan and new revenues to support prosecutors and police – is a meaningful and critical next step towards building a Safer Alaska. I look forward to seeing the Senate concur, and to signing the bill when it reaches my desk.

Gov. Walker called the session with the intent of passing a statewide tax on Alaskan wages. But, that bill has received little attention from either legislative body.

"I don’t think there’s any realistic expectation that there’s time left in the session to deal with the actual legislation of an income tax," said Rep. Dan Saddler (R-Eagle River) on Monday.

Walker added SB54 as a secondary measure on the agenda. But, both the House and Senate said Monday SB54 is their priority. So far, there hasn't been any major movement on a tax.

Because the House already passed an income tax earlier this year, House Majority Leader Chris Tuck (D-Anchorage) says his caucus is waiting for the Senate to make the first move on that measure. 

"We did pass a comprehensive fiscal plan over to the Senate within 90 days, so now, we’re just waiting for the Senate to do what they need to do. In the meanwhile, we’re working on crime on our side," Tuck said. 

The Senate has consistently opposed an income tax. On Monday, Senate President Pete Kelly (R-Fairbanks) says that stance hasn’t changed. 

"There isn’t the level of enthusiasm about the tax bill as there is about the crime bill. The crime bill is something that is immediately present that we have to deal with. Taxes are something that we’ve been talking about for a long time and we haven’t come any closer to [an] agreement," Kelly said. 

Kelly also points to a state report that projects a 2 percent increase in oil production. 

"The production forecast proved that our instincts were correct, and our instincts are that we don't need money from Alaskans in the form of a tax, or an income tax, to close the fiscal gap. It probably does that on its own, or at least, we have reserves to last many, many years," Kelly added.

Members of the Alaska Senate will return to Juneau on Wednesday. 

The legislative session must end by November 21.

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