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Payroll tax and crime overhaul on the docket for fourth special legislative session

Today ends the first week of the Legislature’s fourth special session. Alaska Public Media’s Zachariah Hughes spoke with KTOO’s Andrew Kitchenman about where things stand.

HUGHES: Andrew, hello, and first of all, tell me where in the Capitol building are you?

KITCHENMAN: Well, I’m in the Capitol’s press room’s little audio recording booth.

HUGHES: And what is happening outside the booth in the capitol today?

KITCHENMAN: Well, we have reporters working on stories, and legislators kind of milling around. And basically what we’ve seen this week is a lot less activity than we would’ve seen if the Senate had stuck around. We’ve only seen meetings basically in the House the last coupe days. The Senate’s going to be holding meetings next week in Anchorage. But, for now, basically the House is working on both of the bills hat Governor Bill Walker asked the Legislature to consider. One bill would bill would scale back some of the changes made last year in the major overhaul of the state’s criminal justice law, and the other bill would just impose a new tax — a one and a half percent payroll tax.

HUGHES: I want to start with the criminal justice bill because I think people are getting very confused messages about what’s actually happening. It sounds like there’s SB91 which was signed into law last year, but this year the Senate’s actually considering Senate Bill 54. Explain what, in the last few days, they’ve decided to do with that?

KITCHENMAN: Well, before they started work on it, what the bill would’ve done is basically make the penalties for committing some offenses tougher than they were under SB91. For example, the Legislature, if it passes this bill, people who commit Class C felonies, like assault or threatening, would expect to face one year in jail, and under SB91, they would only see jail time if they violated their probation. What’s been happening this week is the House Judiciary Committee debated amendments to the bill. They passed eight of those. They defeated 22 others. Many, many hours of debate. The eight amendments aren’t expected to have a major budget impact, and that is probably good for the chances of the bill passing, because the majorities in both houses probably don’t want to see a dramatic incrase in the budget due to this bill.

HUGHES: Do you have a sense about where things are headed with the bill?

KITCHENMAN: Well, it goes to the House Finance Committee next and they’re also considering the tax bill. Once they’re done with the crime bill, it’s gonna go to the entire house, and that promises to be a heated floor debate. Most Republicans want the bill to go further in repealing SB91, while most Democrats want to give the major provisions of last year’s law more time. My sense is that lawmakers want to pass a bill considering how concerned Alaskans are about crime, particularly in Anchorage.

HUGHES: And what about the tax bill? Wasn’t that the reason legislators were called back to Juneau in the first place, ostensibly, by the Governor? Where do things stand with that?

KITCHENMAN: That’s basically what the session was supposed to be about before the crime issue sort of took it over. The Senate Finance Committiee is scheduled to hold hearings on oil revenue, the state budget and the Permanent Fund next week. Presumably, they’re gonna explore how large a gap there is between what the state spends and what it brings in in oil royalties, taxes and fees. Walker’s team says that the tax is needed to cover that gap, and that’d be true even if the Legislature were to pass another major bill that would draw money from Permanent Fund earnings to pay for state government. The bill faces long odds in the Senate because some Senators are basically hopeful that oil royalties will cover the gap like it has whenever the state’s been in a budget crisis in the past.