Crime bill pressure hits boiling point in Senate Judiciary



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.


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.

[Watch the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings today and decide for yourself.]


  1. What Coghill did in holding back those bills instead of allowing them to be heard was unconscionable. Costello did the right CONSERVATIVE thing by trying to get those bills heard. We will never fix the mess the legislature is in while we have a broken committee process that lets one person make all the decisions for the entire legislature.

    • I agree. We have seen similar things happen in House Committees where the minority has been shut out of the process. I heard Matt Claman say, “we don’t have to do this at all…” The Committee process is fundamental and chaired by the majority caucus member. The kind of power Coghill exercised today does not fit a rule driven process, not one that fits a parliamentary model. The Ethics committee must be totally dysfunctional…

  2. This narrative is factually incorrect and shows the bias of the author. For the record, Wielechowski is one of the most staunch supporters of the PFD. If you are going to call him far left for that reason and the right is supposed to be grabbers, then the ARP will lose substantial ground. Another misrepresentation needs light as well. Senator Wielechowski has voted against every proposed income tax legislation which has come before him. At least if you are going to report, please check facts because they do matter.

  3. Bravo to Costello for rolling Coghill! He deserves it. This has nothing to do with his district seemingly being unaffected by the crime wave. The man has a stiff neck. I lobbied him hard in 2016 before the bill went to the governor for signature and told him SB91 would allow sex traffickers to walk and he would not move. That was his baby and he was protecting it with his life. It is an unlikely alliance but she didn’t sell out. She sees the destruction of SB91 and tried to right her wrong – a vote in favor of it. Bravo, Mia! Coghill needs to stop his ridiculous defense of a dangerous law that he sponsored.

    Well written, Suzanne. This reads like a great story.

  4. Coghill refused to allow public testimony on these bills. Good for Costello , Showers and Weilachowski for doing what was necessary and what they are sent to Juneau for, to Represent the people of Alaska!

  5. My office did ask Friday if public testimony would be allowed since this is a rather unusual circumstance and Rule 48 does not specify a “normal” hearing process for a bill in committee (multiple hearings, public testimony), only that a hearing be scheduled within 3 days or the bill is automatically moved to the next committee. The response was they were unsure if it would be and we would have to wait and see if the chair decided to allow it. It is the chair’s decision. We had to split the difference on notifying the public with such short notice for the hearing and hope public testimony might happen. It was clear at the beginning of the judiciary meeting on Saturday the chair was not going to do so and is his prerogative, whether one agrees or not. Those are rules we have to follow, no different than our memo requesting a hearing is a legitimate tool though rarely used if bills gets stuck in committee. Sometimes the rules work in your favor, sometimes they don’t, doesn’t mean you quit fighting for what you believe in. It’s great to win individual battles but winning the war for the long term is what ultimately counts.

  6. Until lines were redrawn several years ago, Mia was my rep & would have been my senator. Now I have Tuck and von Imhof.

    If the ultimate goal was a hearing of the repeal of SB91, Mia should have had Wilakowski’s bill be last on the docket and hers first. At least then if Coghill used his chairmanship to halt the proceedings right there, he’d be on record as not supporting the repeal of SB91. As is, he can now say he “checked the temperature of the room” and didn’t find the support for Wilakowski’s bill. Rather cowardly IMHO, if all signs are pointing to the failure of SB91 (as they are), be the adult on the committee and admit it needs to be corrected and at least brought to the floor for debate to repeal.

  7. Time to repeal SB91 and constitutionalize the Hammond 50-50 plan along with budget cuts.. SheldonforAlaska.Com will bring about the needed change with our 81.9.10 plan to reduce spending on non essential services and big government.

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