Alaska End of Session Wrap-Up 2016
by Ken Helander, Advocacy Director, AARP Alaska
Since legislators did not come to agreement on the state’s budget, which they must pass according to the state constitution, as well as some other major items left hanging, the governor called a special session to begin immediately. Nevertheless, it has, to this point, been a consequential and somewhat productive session.
While the overriding theme for legislators was the severe loss of state revenue due to low oil prices worldwide, and the challenge of how to address this in the state’s budget process, much time was spent looking for cuts in state spending, and any bill that had a fiscal note had little chance of advancing. Cuts in spending were significant to many areas of state services, including the university, education, capital projects, and of course, health and social services. There is still wrangling on the proper use of state oil tax credits, the structure and use of Permanent Fund earnings, and other specific taxes, such as on mining, alcohol, fisheries, etc. The legislators seemed generally unwilling to consider broader and potentially more unpopular revenue sources such as state sales or income taxes, presumably because it is an election year. Nevertheless, they are still in session and anything could happen at the last moment.
While much less was heard about the proposed gas pipeline project (it is still on the agenda), the Knik Arm Bridge, and some discussion about how to deal with legalized marijuana, there were two very notable bills that will have significant impact on the state. The first dealt with Medicaid reform, SB 74. Its provisions include new ways of addressing opiate abuse, appropriate use of hospital emergency rooms, telehealth, false claims/fraud, behavioral health integration, primary care/health homes, and tribal health policy. There are also provisions for feasibility studies of privatization of the Pioneers Homes (or specific services) and the Alaska Psychiatric Institute. AARP Alaska, and many familiar partners all worked hard to craft the bill’s provisions, and it notably had much bipartisan support. There is a partnership effort now to provide education to stakeholders and the public on the bill’s particulars through a series of webinars. These should be archived and available on the DHSS website.
The second major piece of legislation was SB 91, a sweeping bill to reform the criminal justice system, particularly with regard to non-violent offenders. The bill is very complex and it will take some time to parse all of its implications. It is projected to save the state money and to provide increased supports to persons re-entering the community from correctional facilities.
This year, AARP Alaska conducted its first legislative “fly-in” with 21 staff and volunteers from around the state convening in Juneau to advocate for AARP’s priorities. Bedecked in red vests, the advocates roamed the halls of the capitol, met with many legislators and their staff, sat in on House and Senate floor sessions, and attended a bill overview by Kevin Anselm, Director of the Alaska Division of Banking and Securities (SB 108 and HB 194, both stalled in committee).
The fly-in members had four priority items to advocate with legislators:
- HB 8 – Uniform Power of Attorney Bill (Rep. Hughes, sponsor)This bill has been in the works for more than four years. Its primary purpose is to update existing POA statute to more closely conform to the uniform language being used in an increasing number of states. It provides increased protection from financial or material exploitation for vulnerable adults (principal); clarifies the roles and responsibilities of the person to whom powers are delegated (agent); and facilitates acceptance by third parties. The bill passed the House last year, and was unanimously passed by the Senate on April 16. It awaits the governor’s signature.
- SB 72 – CARE Act (Sen. Giessel, sponsor)The CARE Act is an AARP initiated bill (most states have passed or are working on it) to address the needs of caregivers of persons being discharged from hospital care. The bill requires hospitals to develop policies that contain three main elements: opportunity is given to a patient to designate a person (e.g., family member, friend, neighbor) who will provide post-hospital care and support; record the name of the designated caregiver in the patient’s record; provide the opportunity for the caregiver to have demonstrated instruction in post-discharge care tasks. The purpose of the bill is to reduce caregiver stress, provide increased patient/caregiver safety, prevent unnecessary hospital readmission, and increase likelihood of positive health outcome. The bill was passed unanimously by both the Senate and the House, and awaits the governor’s signature. Notably, fly-in members were present in the Senate gallery for the floor vote.
- SB 1 – Statewide Smoke-free Workplace (Sen. Micciche, sponsor)AARP Alaska has been a longtime partner with other health organizations (American Cancer Society, American Lung Association, American Heart Association, et al.) to extend the protections from second hand smoke in the workplace and other public spaces that are enjoyed in many local communities (e.g. Anchorage, Juneau, Bethel) to the rest of the state where many communities do not have health powers to enact local regulations. As the bill progressed over the past several years, it necessarily evolved to deal with the advent of e-cigarettes and legalization of marijuana. The bill passed the Senate with a wide margin, but despite thousands of support cards, hundreds of business and community resolutions, and even clear majority house member support, it was held up by one committee chair and prevented from moving to a floor vote. This was a very disappointing setback for those who believe all Alaskans have a right to breathe clean air.
- Senior Safety Net (State Operating Budget)Despite ardent advocacy by seniors, providers and many aging persons, there were some other aging persons in the legislature who saw fit to cut programs that make up much of the safety net that helps keep seniors independent in their own homes. Having already made steep cuts to the Senior Benefit Program’s highest tier level, that category is removed altogether for FY 2017. That means no senior with income over 100% of the Federal Poverty Level will receive cash assistance through the Senior Benefit Program. The budget also included a $9 million elimination of the state energy assistance program that aids low income seniors. It removes the $6 million Medicaid adult dental program. And the budget provides for a $100/year fee to be on the waiting list for the Pioneers Home. Still to be finalized in the budget negotiations are state grants that support in-home care, transportation, and respite programs.There was an attempt to eliminate the statutory mandate for property tax exemption on the first $150,000 of assessed value. This was in conjunction with the desire of the legislature to reduce/eliminate revenue sharing with municipalities (now called community assistance). However, push-back from older property owners forced the exemption to remain.