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Note from Rep. Les Gara
Note from Rep. Les Gara  
Senate Leaders Choose No Jail Time for Car Theft, Sexual Abuse of Minors (and a Bigger Recession!)
Over Staying at Work
Note from Rep. Les Gara

November 13, 2017

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Dear Neighbors:

I’m here in Juneau, with almost no senators. That’s been the case for most of Special Session, as most Republican Senate majority members skipped work the first ten days of this 30-day Special Session and then left for good this past Saturday. The Governor rightly called the session on crime legislation, legislation that’s badly needed to stem a recession and a two-year string of over 11,000 lost jobs in the private and public sectors. You deserve better than inaction and sloppy work. The Governor’s bill to help reverse our job-killing recession wasn’t perfect, and needed work and compromise. But no one benefitted when the Senate leadership said that work on a two-year recession, and a crime law with loopholes that needed to be fixed, could wait. 

Crime and No Punishment: Senators Leave Town, Likely Leave Car Theft and Sexual Abuse of a Minor As Non-Jailable Offenses

This year, the House is led by a bipartisan coalition of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. The Senate holds a much different ideology and is Republican-led. We should all be able to work together. But that can’t happen when one of our two houses in the Legislature won’t work. 

Saturday, after calling their majority Senate members back to town for just two days – most Senate majority members were encouraged to stay home the first two weeks of this 30-day session – Senate leaders voted to skip town, end this current legislative session, and go home. Nice work if you can get it.

Senators left Alaska with a crime law that will likely continue to let those who steal cars, and anything worth $750 - $25,000, without jail time (if it is their first felony offense). Sexual abuse of a minor in the third degree will likely become a non-jailable offense by a first-time felony offender. These were fixes it seemed all members supported, across party lines. Senate leaders then skipped town, with some leaving a trail of partisan attacks to cover their backs. I’m happy to set the record straight about those who lobbed the deceptive speech bombs. 

And I’ll ask that they come back to Juneau so we can do our work. One house can’t pass legislation when the other has gone home to skip work.

Many of us, including the Governor, think leaving work, when inaction leads to continued crime and a bigger recession, is what our House Speaker rightly called, an “abdication of their responsibilities.” Speaker Edgmon continued, in a statement he issued Saturday after senators voted to skip town, “We can force the Senate back to Juneau, but apparently we, and the Governor, can’t actually make them work.”

Senate President Pete Kelly was one who comfortably lobbed attacks at Democrats, our bipartisan House coalition, and the Governor in a recent op ed. On Saturday, he argued, before voting to let the Senate leave town and stop working, that he was being “tough on crime.” The problem? Senators left a bill that, without them coming back to do work, is weak on crime. And the recession will grow longer and worse because of continued inaction. This is wrong in times that call for action.

So What Happened?

Over the course of two weeks, the House passed a tougher crime bill, which in part replaced a former provision that allowed first-time, non-violent C felonies to be non-jailable offenses. Just as a side note to address a few myths, the prior law, which passed in 2016, and which we came to Juneau two weeks ago to fix, did jail violent criminals. It had left in place rules saying that even for a first-time felony offense, maximum jail time could be imposed with “aggravated” conduct, such as causing physical injury to someone, using a weapon, or selling drugs during the offense. And contrary to myths from those with political agendas, home burglary was and has been jailable as a higher-level B felony. So has robbery (stealing from a person with the person present). And sentences for rape, murder, and drug dealing were also sternly punished, with last year’s law increasing the jail time for murder. 

The myth that those crimes were non-jailable or treated softly was one created by those angling towards the 2018 election, as well as radio shock jocks and political bloggers who thought they could push their agenda by lying to people and scaring them. 

The Crime Law Fix Everyone Agreed Should Happen... And Then Didn’t

The 2016 law was flawed, even for all its evidence-based provisions to reduce the percentage of criminal offenders who commit new crimes shortly after leaving jail (a disturbing, unsafe 67% as of 2016). The 2016 law adopted evidence-based probation and other practices to reduce the number of people coming out of jail who commit another crime and endanger the public. The most controversial provision left most theft (but not home burglary or robbery) non-jailable for first-time offenders (unless the person committed aggravated conduct, such as using a weapon or endangering somebody). 

The bill passed by the House restored jail time for first-time C felony offenders. In an amendment on the House floor by Representative Lora Reinbold, the jail time for first-time C felony provision was increased. That’s where the current problem started. I voted against that amendment, knowing that up to a year in jail for a first-time offender (which I voted for) could be increased to up to five years based on the level of the person’s misconduct (use of weapons, causing physical injury, and other aggravated dangerous conduct). Yet the amendment passed.

That amendment is likely unconstitutional, according to the Attorney General and our legislative attorneys in statements that did not come out until after the House passed the bill with the Reinbold amendment. It can be reversed by a court, and if that occurs, it will put us back where we were before. Where would that be? If a court holds this amendment unconstitutional, first-time C felony thefts and first-time C felony sexual abuse of a minor (a crime I added an amendment to increase sentences for) will go back to the 2016 law, which says that first-time felony offenders will not get jail time (unless one of the aggravated conduct factors applies). 

I don’t blame House members on either side of the aisle who disagreed with me and passed that amendment. The legal advice about its unconstitutionality did not come out until this past Wednesday, after the bill had passed the House. The Senate does not get the same slack.

On Saturday, before voting, the Senate was told in a hearing by our attorneys and the Attorney General’s office that this provision was potentially (likely, I believe) unconstitutional. All the Senate had to do was join a House-Senate conference committee to fix this. It would not have been rocket science and could have been done by today, or even faster. Our Alaska House Majority Coalition called for that committee to fix the bill.

Instead of staying to fix the provision, the Senate passed the likely unconstitutional provision, unchanged, and left town. Instead of admitting they left town passing a provision that will likely revert back to a “no-jail time for first-time C felony offenders” provision, Senate President Pete Kelly took to the Senate floor Saturday saying he was being “tough” on crime. 

Saying something doesn’t make it true. Saying it in an impassioned speech doesn’t make it true. The Senate still has time to reverse its vote to stop working, and return to the Capitol to fix what’s badly broken. The public is right to ask that this be fixed. Car theft and third-degree sexual abuse of a minor should not be non-jailable offenses.

Oh – And the Recession...

I’ve written about this in the past. Senator Kelly wrote last week that inaction during this session was what he preferred. I disagree.

With the drop in oil prices- and to a lesser extent, a law weakening our ability to receive a fair revenue share for our oil (the Senate majority has blocked the oil reform bill passed by the House)- this state takes in miniscule levels of revenue compared to past years. Since 2015, the State has received a fraction of what we raised in oil revenue, at higher prices, a few years back. As a result, we’ve had three years in a row of $2.5 - $3 billion deficits. We’ve cut the budget by about 40%, roughly $3.5 billion since 2013, and yet those deficits persist.

This year our Senate colleagues, again, proposed an additional $100 million in cuts to education, the University, and services for seniors, children, and people with disabilities – cuts that our House members reversed. Harming people under those proposals would have left a $2.4 billion deficit, instead of a $2.5 billion one. While those proposals would have done little to mask our budget deficit, they would have harmed the public’s right to dignity and opportunity. Meanwhile, Alaska has lost over 11,000 jobs in the last two years. 

The evidence from all experts is that, at this point, every $100 million in additional budget cuts kills another 1,000 – 1,500 private and public sector jobs. Smart budget cuts to waste make sense. Some things, like public education, have been cut too much. But just cutting for cutting’s sake is dangerous.

When there is less money in the economy, fewer people buy things from local businesses, and fewer people buy or rent homes. In addition, the State has almost no construction budget left, leaving construction workers with the choice to move from Alaska or earn too little to support their families. The State’s construction budget is roughly 1/3 of its historical average, pushing our recession even deeper.

Asked to work on a revenue package, the Senate refused. I will say today, as I have for over a year, that we need a balanced plan to close our budget gap. Doing nothing is popular. But as people leave the state, it will be popular with fewer and fewer people.

As usual, I’d like to hear from you. And please let us know if we can help in any way.


[signed] Les Gara

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