Omnibus Bill Passes State Senate: Why I Could Not Support It

Contributed by Senator Bill Stoltze

On Saturday, April 9th, the State Senate took the first step in passing the most significant and wide-reaching piece of criminal legislation in the history of Alaska—Senate Bill 91.  The legislation was passed by a vote of 16-2. I voted against SB 91. I felt I have a responsibility to tell you why I could not support this bill.

First, I believe this bill has grown too big, too complicated, and contains too many potential pitfalls and unpredictable (as well as predictable) ramifications.  It contained a number of other bills within it which had been “run up the flagpole” over the years with little or no support.

It has become a centerpiece for the Walker administration and the Legislature, and deemed a “must-pass” bill.  Whether in the federal, local, or state government (where I serve), no issue should become “too big to fail.”

At 174 sections in length, most of which are extraordinarily dense and complex. Many of the sections could be their own significant and controversial pieces of legislation, were they not all melded together in SB 91. To be fair, there were a number of positive, well thought out reforms. Several of which I could have supported as stand-alone bills; as I did when voting for Representative Cathy Tilton’s HB 93 and Representative Tammie Wilson’s HB 15, which reform probation and parole.

Just a few of the key provisions in SB 91:
•    Nearly triples the felony threshold for theft.
•    Puts too much of a burden on law enforcement and the all too frequently targeted Alaskans, for whom theft has been all too common an occurrence throughout Alaska’s neighborhoods.
•    Potential automatic releases for “geriatric” offenders, at the age of 60 (was 55 in the original version of the bill) is problematic and in many cases has no logical foundation.
•    Reduction to simple citations for many dangerous and serious activities.
•    Removes any effective level of deterrence and immediate consequences.

Certainly, there are viable arguments made to more effectively address the issue of how we approach drug offenses.  I believe the state needs to reform how we treat first time, low level drug offenses; incentivized in a path to recovery. This was potentially one of the positive parts of the bill. However, in this bill the sanctions for dealing heroin are significantly reduced, including the possibility of doing no jail time at all.  This was not something I could support.

I was also disappointed that a much targeted drug testing requirement for certain welfare recipients (Those with recent felony drug convictions.) to participate in a limited period of drug testing, was not included with the bill.  Dollars for welfare assistance should be used for food, shelter, and other necessities—not for drugs!  This stand-alone amendment, which I sponsored, failed on the floor by a vote of 6 to 12.  Joining me in supporting this amendment were Senators Huggins, Dunleavy, MacKinnon, Micciche, and Steadman.

Lastly, many law enforcement groups such as: the state’s Office of Victims’ rights, Standing Together Against Rape, Victims for Justice, and many other groups came out as recently as last week, before the bill’s passage of the Senate, united in strong unambiguous opposition to SB 91 because of unresolved issues relating to the constitutional rights of crime victims and serious law enforcement concerns.

I support meaningful reforms and smarter justice, but this is not the bill.  This bill was fraught with too many problems and predictable negative ramifications.

(This piece reflects the status of SB 91 on the evening of April 10th, 2016.  By the time many of you read this, the final pass or fail disposition of this bill may have been decided.)