The Alaska State Legislature convenes on Monday with plenty to hash out. The COVID-19 pandemic has wiped out millions of dollars in revenue this year, and has triggered a drop in oil prices that has hit state coffers hard.
Both of Kodiak’s state representatives, Sen. Gary Stevens and Rep. Louise Stutes, are urging against slashing services and giving out a massive Permanent Fund Dividend. They also both have a number of bills they’d like to see passed to help out fisheries, education and the Alaska Marine Highway System.
Stevens (R-Kodiak) said the first thing the Senate needs to do is get organized. There are 20 senators — seven Democrats and 13 Republicans — but there is not a consensus majority as of yet.
“The Senate is not close, I don’t think,” he said.
“The biggest stumbling block is trust. … It’s a negotiation process. It takes a long time to work through that. The goal, of course, is to get to 11. We’ll see if we can reach that in whatever way we can.”
Stevens, a moderate Republican, hasn’t decided what he’ll do yet.
“It could go either way, and we need time to figure it out,” he said.
There have been rules to write about how to keep COVID-19 from spreading in Juneau. Stevens, as the head of the Legislative Council, has been in charge of coming up with those. Masks are required, for instance.
In the wake of last week’s assault on the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., there’s also concern about the potential of violence at the state capitol, so security has been heightened.
“A march or a rally would be okay … but if there would be a repeat of what happened at the nation’s capital in D.C., people breaking in and damaging things, that becomes another picture,” Stevens said.
Once procedural matters are ironed out, passing a budget will be the first priority.
The big divide in the Legislature over the past few years has been the Permanent Fund Dividend: namely, how much Alaskans should get in dividends, how much should be spent funding the government, and how to preserve it.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy has proposed about $5,000 in PFD dividends during the next fiscal year, which Stevens says is far too much.
“We know that would break the bank,” Stevens said.
“It would overdraw the fund and damage the future of the fund. We have to be very careful there. I know people need help. I support the Permanent Fund Dividend. I don’t know what the magic number of what that dividend will be, but we’ll work on that.”
Stevens said his preference would be to pass the budget first, have legislators go home and get vaccinated, and then come back and pass bills. But the timeline isn’t certain yet.
One thing Stevens said he’s focused on is getting some money for building and renovation projects in his district. Dunleavy has proposed a capital budget, meaning a pot of money to be used for building projects, of around $350 million. It would be paid for through a bond issue.
The state is looking for “shovel ready” projects that could be started right away. Stevens said he was hoping to get the city of Kodiak’s fire hall overhauled, which would cost about $20 million.
“My priority would be to get that fire hall, or something like it, into the capital budget,” he said.
There are several bills Stevens would like to push for once the Legislature gets through the budget process.
There’s a bill that would allow cod and pollock processors access to tax credits to expand their operations and buy new equipment.
There are several education bills. One is a bill that would help high school students in all districts get college credit while still in high school, as long as the University of Alaska approves it. Another would allow teachers who are certified in other states to get temporary certifications in Alaska.
“We’re in a position where we need more teachers than most states. We don’t have many homegrown teachers. So we need to be able to hire folks from outside and sometimes that certification of teachers has gotten in the way of hiring people from outside of Alaska,” Stevens said.
A third bill would establish a task force that would make recommendations about how to incorporate Native Alaskan culture into school systems.
Kodiak’s House Representative Louise Stutes said the House is having similar challenges to the Senate when it comes to getting organized. Coalitions have still not been formed yet that are big enough to have a majority. She’s joined with the Coalition caucus, which is made up of Democrats, Independents and her, a Republican.
“It takes time, it takes conversations, and that’s what we’re doing,” she said.
When it comes to the budget, Stutes said the Legislature needs to be talking about new revenue sources, even though the Dunleavy administration has, historically, pushed back against those ideas.
Stutes said she’s more amenable to an income tax rather than a sales tax, since the city of Kodiak and other communities she represents already have one.
“Unless they can exclude food, heating oil, the necessities, I would be very hard pressed to support that,” Stutes said.
An income tax might be a better idea.
“We have to have the conversation. It depends on how it’s constructed. That’s what it boils down to. And the conversation hasn’t been had,” she said.
“People want their services. And they’re going to have to come to terms with the fact that if they want the services, they’re going to have to pay for them.”
She, like Stevens, is opposed to the size of the PFD that Dunleavy put forward in his budget.
“The idea of a $5,000 per person check and overdrawing the earnings reserve is preposterous. It’ll work if people want to give up the idea of having a PFD into the future,” she said.
Stutes said her top priority on bills will be legislation that puts “teeth” into the Marine Transportation Advisory Board, the board that oversees the Alaska Marine Highway System. It doesn’t have enough authority right now, Stutes said.
“They give their report to the higher-ups at the Marine Highway or the administration, and they as much as round-file it,” Stutes said.
She also wants to work on a few bills related to fisheries, including one that will allow people on the Board of Fisheries with conflicts of interest to participate in those discussions, and also be allowed to vote. The bill got out of the House and to the Senate last year, but then COVID-19 hit and that halted negotiations.
“What’s the point of having your area of expertise on the board if you can’t even involve yourself in the conversation? That’s foolishness.”
Another would straighten out registration processes around boats. Some of them got double registered when the state passed a bill about derelict boats, and this bill would eliminate that issue.