Last week, Senator Mike Dunleavy held a town hall in Sunshine where locals voiced their thoughts and concerns about public safety leading up to the current special session of the Alaska Legislature. The session, which was called by Governor Bill Walker, has two topics, a bill to amend the recently passed crime bill known as Senate Bill 91, and raising state revenue through taxes. After the meeting, I spoke with Senator Dunleavy about those and other topics as he prepared to travel to Juneau.
One idea that was brought up by multiple town hall attendees is for the state to use incarceration methods similar to those of former Maricopa County, Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Arpaio is known for forcing prisoners to wear pink, making them live in tent cities, and other measures to make incarceration uncomfortable. Dunleavy says he’s not sure one way or the other whether the controversial sheriff’s methods are right for Alaska, and that a change of that magnitude would require alterations at all levels of the corrections process.
“You’re talking about culture, so it’s complex. If it was simple, we’d have a simple answer. We wouldn’t be having this discussion. But, I think we take a look at that, and if there’s merit to that, who wouldn’t we apply things that work?”
While he believes aspects of Senate Bill 91 exacerbate high crime levels in the state, Dunleavy says he has not decided whether to push for a full repeal or to support the changes proposed in another piece of legislation, Senate Bill 54. He says that crime has been high in Alaska for a long time, well before the new law, and has been an issue even when the state had money to spend.
“I don’t think we made it a priority…I think all of us either accepted it, were used to it, thought it was part of the landscape. Maybe some of us were fortunate that we were victims of crime. I can’t explain it, but the long and short of it is that we had a very high crime rate. I don’t think we made it a priority to bring that crime rate down.”
Dunleavy wants to push public safety as a larger priority in the state. A handout provided by his staff at the town hall shows that, while Alaska State Trooper positions have been lost in recent years due to fiscal constraints, that their numbers did not grow in times when the money was available.
On the issue of taxes, Dunleavy says he agrees with Senate President Pete Kelly’s request that the governor come up with a slimmer budget and provide new oil revenue forecasts before taxing Alaskans’ income.
Aside from the issues on the table at the special session, there are political questions when it comes to Senator Dunleavy’s future. Earlier this year, he left the Senate Majority caucus. While the departure did cost him committee assignments, Dunleavy says it gave him additional flexibility.
“You’re able to, I think, represent your constituents in a different manner–I’m not going to say better or worse—but in a different manner than when you are in the caucus. When you’re in the caucus, it’s often about making sure the caucus gets along, sometimes at the expense of constituents.”
The special session comes while Senator Dunleavy’s campaign to run for governor next year is on hold for health reasons. He was not ready to share his plans for the campaign at the time of our interview, but says he expects to make his intent known this week.