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Annexation, alcohol reg reform and COVID-19 on lawmakers' agendas ahead of session

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Soldotna Rep. Sen. Peter Micciche is continuing his push to update the state’s alcohol laws while Soldotna Republican Rep. Ron Gillham has introduced several bills relating to COVID-19 vaccine objections and medications. That’s according to the first list of bills legislators filed ahead of the start of the spring session in Juneau.

Micciche, who is also Senate president, said anything that will pass in this second session will need to have a significant amount of support from legislators to get through, since there’s just one year left in the two-year legislative cycle.

He said his newly prefiled bill dovetails another he’s been working on for years to update alcohol regulations. That bill, Senate Bill 9, would modernize the state’s alcohol laws, including those that currently limit craft breweries.

The new bill, SB 151, would extend the term of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board until 2026 so it could address delays and licensing issues he said are related to the complicated policies in place now. 

“Although they’re separate bills, we plan to pursue the passage of those bills, sort of, as a package, if you will," he said.

Micciche said he’s optimistic about passing those alcohol bills. And he’s hopeful about another that carries over from the last session, SB 29, which would make it possible for set-netters in Cook Inlet to sell back their fishing permits.

That would allow those fishermen to move onto new sites or new work, Micciche said, since the fishery has been plagued by issues in recent years. And he said the bill has a broad base of support from constituents.

“It’s the first time that I’ve seen in the history of my four-year experience with the different fisheries that the sport and commercial fishing groups walked into my office and said, ‘We have an idea, we have a solution that we think will eliminate a lot of the fish fights in Cook Inlet and that we believe would be best for the fish,'" Micciche said.

Rep. Gillham also prefiled several bills ahead of the session, including three related to COVID-19.

One, House Bill 237, would require pharmacists dispense medication “for the treatment or prevention of COVID-19 and related diseases” if that medication has been prescribed by a physician. And it said the state board cannot discipline or deny a license to a pharmacist that prescribes those medications.

Last year, three Republican legislators asked the state’s pharmacy board to make it easier for patients to get access to ivermectin, an anti-parasite medication that has not been proven to successfully treat COVID-19. Representatives said pharmacists should fill any prescription they receive from a doctor, “no questions asked,” according to reporting by Alaska Public Media. Board Chair Justin Ruffridge, of Soldotna Professional Pharmacy, later said in a letter that pharmacists can use their “professional judgment” to decide whether they will fill prescriptions for ivermectin for treatment of COVID-19.

Gillham said, while the issue of pharmacists denying prescriptions came to his attention during COVID-19, he means it to apply to illnesses or conditions beyond COVID-19, too.

"The pharmacist doesn't have your medical records like a doctor does," Gillham said.

Another bill from Gillham, HB 238, said vaccines can’t be required of a person by “a business, an employer, a state agency, a municipality, the University of Alaska, or a school district” if that person objects on “religious, medical, or philosophical grounds.” It also extends that exemption to minors if their parent or guardian objects.

A separate bill HB 242, said a person cannot receive funds from the state if they require “medical procedures” from employees or contractors.

“I just don’t feel that an employer should be able to tell their employee that they need to do anything to get some kind of a medical treatment in order to keep a job," Gillham said. "That to me is unconscionable.”

Gillham’s not the only one who’s focusing on COVID-19 out of the gate. Several other bills prefiled by legislators take aim at COVID-19-related rules and mandates. Last year, representatives from the peninsula signed onto a bill that would have barred private businesses and public entities from requiring vaccinations as a condition of employment.

Another of Gillham’s prefiled bills, HB 224, takes aim at how municipal annexation is handled.

Gillham said he filed the bill in response to the ongoing debate over annexation in Soldotna. The city proposed annexing 2.63 square miles outside city limits several years back but hit a snag in 2020 when the state's Local Boundary Commission voted to leave the matter up to residents. Soldotna is now appealing that decision in court.

If Soldotna does put the matter to a vote, it would have to pass through a majority of voters. Gillham’s bill suggests annexation be approved by two-thirds of the people who live in the proposed annexation area. 

"It should be the people’s choice living in that area whether or not they want to be annexed," Gillham said.

Commissioners said in 2020 that the Soldotna instance was the only time they’ve turned a petition over to a vote. Gillham said his bill would make it impossible for land to be annexed without a vote by residents first.

Other bills prefiled by Gillham would create a full municipal property tax exemption for Alaska seniors (HB 225) and require school districts and the state to make school boundary maps more available to people in the district (HB 244). Gillham said he eventually plans to propose legislation that would make it possible for people to send their kids to any school in their district, regardless of where they live.

Another bill, HB 235, would create a “James ‘Hobo Jim’ Varsos Day” on the first Sunday of each March, in honor of the Alaska singer who died late last year.

The legislative session begins Jan. 18.

Sabine Poux is the news director at KDLL. Originally from New York, she's lived and reported in Argentina and Vermont, where she fell in love with local news. She covers all things central peninsula but is especially interested in stories related to energy and fishing. She'd love to hear your ideas at spoux@kdll.org.
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