HOW SEN. COSTELLO WON A BATTLE BUT…
The men and women of the Alaska Legislature are feeling the heat on crime, but some are feeling it more than others.
Anchorage, Mat-Su, Juneau, and parts of Kenai are experiencing an unprecedented crime wave, while Fairbanks has not been as affected.
Thus, it’s no surprise that the author of the major crime reform bill, Sen. John Coghill of Fairbanks, wants to keep SB 91 in statute and continue to refine it as needed. SB 91 was a sweeping criminal justice reform bill that was signed by Gov. Bill Walker in 2016.
And it’s equally no surprise that Sen. Mia Costello of Anchorage (Sand Lake, Jewel Lake), wants a wholesale repeal of the law that is seen by many in her district as the reasons criminals are running amok in Anchorage.
Costello is going into an election season and expects that her constituents will hold her accountable for her original vote, which was in favor of SB 91. Hitting the reset button on crime legislation is a way of reassuring her base that she gets the message and wishes to make the needed changes.
So when Coghill, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, dragged his feet on Costello’s repeal bill and didn’t schedule hearings, Costello formed an alliance with Sen. Mike Shower of Wasilla and Sen. Bill Wielechowski, a Democrat representing East Anchorage. They forced the issue.
Wait…what? Two Republicans joined in with the arch Democrat of the Senate to roll the committee chairman?
That’s what it came down to this week.
Costello and Shower signed a letter with Wielechowski to move the repeal bill to a hearing. Senate rules say that with three signatures from committee members, a chairman must either put a bill up for a hearing or it will get bounced to the next committee or to the Senate floor.
Part of getting the three names needed on the letter required giving Wielechowski something he wants: A hearing on his resolution — SJR 1 — to put the Permanent Fund dividend in the State Constitution. The third item in the letter pertains to teen dating violence. The law is informally known as Bree’s Law, but the bill would name it that officially.
The unlikely alliance of a moderate Republican (Costello), a conservative Republican (Shower) and a radically left Democrat determined to torpedo the Republican majority has raised more than a few eyebrows, however. Any deal with Wielechowski is likely to be of concern to most GOP politicos, because his ultimate goal is not limited to a higher Permanent Fund dividend, but also enacting a broad-based tax on working Alaskans and higher oil taxes on producers.
Every chance he gets, Wielechowski will try to harm the Senate majority.
For example, today after the Judiciary Committee met, Wielechowski issued a press release stating that Chairman Coghill had refused to take public testimony on the three bills, when Coghill had made it clear at the beginning of the hearing and again at the end that the nature of the first hearing on the bills was to hear them and allow committee members to ask questions and offer amendments.
Public hearings are never held on the first reading of a bill. That comes on the second and subsequent hearings.
And yet, Wielechowski had spun it as though no testimony was ever going to be taken and said in a statement that he would move to bounce the bill to the Senate floor.
Doing so would actually ensure that no public testimony is heard, but this is how the union lawyer works: Sowing confusion and anger is part of the Wielechowski plan, and he has executed it.
COULD SHE LOSE THE WAR?
For his part, Coghill won his reelection in 2016 with over 53 percent of the vote, even after sponsoring SB 91, which has proved to be a hazard to any politician’s future election.
Like Wielechowski and Costello, Coghill is a veteran of the political process and will now need to find a way to forgive Costello for rolling him as a chairman and undermining trust between caucus colleagues.
(Overlooking Wielechowski’s hijinks is something Coghill is much more accustomed to doing.)
What will happen to Costello, who has been a rising star and one of the original sponsors of SB 91? Is she alienating the majority caucus in order to force her bill to the floor or are there other goals, as some in the capitol building have speculated?
Probably not. It is quite likely that we are simply witnessing some late-session, election-year drama around a very critical subject matter near and dear to voters’ hearts: the crime wave.
The political stakes are high. as the disagreements in the Senate Republican caucus on this issue are deep. So it may not be pretty. Stay tuned.