An update from Senate District P

Hello from Juneau.

With the legislative session now in its second month, the Capitol is a busy place. It’s great to be meeting in person again with constituents from all over Senate District C.

Education

SB 29 Civics Education, a bill I have sponsored, adds Civics curriculum and assessment into public school statutes and creates the Alaska Civics Education Commission.

Our School Districts were in Juneau earlier this month to attend the Association of Alaska School Board fly-in meetings.

We had great discussions regarding education and SB 52, which would increase the Base Student Allocation by $1,000. Thank you to all the constituents who called and emailed their public testimony during Senate Education hearings. This bill will have more hearings in Senate Education before moving to Senate Finance.

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Improving education is a priority of our Senate Majority and your public testimony on this bill will help inform legislators as we debate this important subject. You can follow the bill on akleg.gov.

On Feb. 13, the Senate Education committee received an update on the Alaska Reads Act, which was passed last year. This act created four new programs to assist our students to learn to read at grade level by the third grade. Programs include interventions, reading support, voluntary pre-k, and virtual education. The Dept. of Education of Early Development has been meeting with stakeholders and developing their regulations which are now out for public comment through April 19. You can find those proposed regulations here: https://aws.state.ak.us/OnlinePublicNotices/.

The Act will take effect July 1.

Recruitment, retention, & retirement

One of our Senate Majority priorities is to address recruitment, retention, and retirement issues.

The Senate Labor and Commerce committee has been holding hearings regarding our state’s workforce challenges. Various organizations representing our teachers and public safety workers have testified that a significant cause of our state’s recruitment and retention issue is the lack of a defined benefit retirement program.

In Alaska, new public employees do not have access to a pension or Social Security benefits. In 2006, due to a billion-dollar shortfall in the state’s defined benefit retirement system, the state moved from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution 401(k)-style plan.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy recently announced through an administrative order, he is removing degree requirements for some state jobs. Alaska is fortunate to have many excellent career and technical education and vocational education programs through our schools, AVTEC, Kodiak College, Kenai Peninsula College, and others providing quality certificate and other short-term programs. Opening public sector jobs to more people can help with recruitment in our state.

However, I believe we also need to address retention through retirement programs. I look forward to working with legislators to address these issues through solutions that do not put us back into a budget shortfall like we experienced 17 years ago. There are currently two bills introduced this session that address retirement plans: SB 11 and HB 22. You can follow these bills and public testimony opportunities on akleg.gov.

Food security

Food security has also been a topic of discussion this session. Members of the Alaska Farm Bureau and representatives from District C’s food banks were in Juneau to discuss priorities from the Alaska Food Security & Independence Task Force and concerns caused by the SNAP food stamp delays. The Task Force’s final report is expected to be published by Feb. 27. You will be able to find the report here: commerce.alaska.gov/web/FoodSecurityTaskForce.

Last year, the legislature passed HB 298 the Alaska Food Strategy Task Force, which will expand on the work done by the previous group and help strengthen our state’s diverse food systems. Members for this group are now being appointed and they are due to have two reports shared with the legislature in August of 2023 and August 2024.

Through committee hearings and budget reviews, the legislature is questioning the Department of

Health regarding their solutions for food security and SNAP food stamp delays. The Governor released his amended FY24 budget this month and he included an additional $9 million for the Division of Public Assistance to decrease the backlog of applications; $54 million was also added in the capital budget to complete the transfer to the division’s new computer system.

The services provided by our local and state food banks are invaluable with helping our community members with immediate needs during these times of high fuel and food costs. If you or someone you know is having trouble with their public assistance applications, please reach out to the department’s Virtual Call Center (VCC) at 1-800-478-7778 or email at [email protected] or call my office if you have difficulty getting through to the VCC.

FY 2024 budget

The Senate Finance Subcommittees have been announced. I will be serving on subcommittees for the Department of Education & Early Development, the Governor’s office, and the Legislature. We typically do not start meeting until the House gets closer to completing their version of the operating budget. As is tradition, the House Finance Subcommittees begin their meetings first and should be wrapping up by the end of February. I anticipate the House Finance committee will have public testimony for HB 39 the Operating Budget in early March. You can follow the committee schedules and public testimony opportunities on akleg.gov or contact your regional Legislative Information Office (LIO).

As noted earlier, the Governor released his amended budget on Feb. 15. In addition to the funding provided for the Division of Public Assistance, $7.5 million was added for Public Safety patrol vessel replacement and $2.8 million for 10 more VPSOs and housing allowances.

Also added was $500,000 for Emergency Medical Services Match for Code Blue Projects, which is vital to our rural emergency medical service programs. The state also was awarded $285 million in federal grants to support the Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS). And $40 million of the total AMHS funding is for operations, $68.4 million goes toward replacement of the M/V Tustumena, and $163.7 million will be used for funding an electric ferry, upgrading Cordova’s dock, replacing docks in Tatitlek and Chenega, and modernizing our existing vessels.

Funding was also added for Chenega Airport Lighting Improvements, Homer Airport Master Plan update, Seward Snow Removal Equipment Building and Sand Storage Building, Kodiak Otmeloi Way reconstruction, several Seward highway reconstruction projects, and Cordova Ferry Terminal modifications.

While I am glad to see these additions for our district, the Governor’s amendments leave a $400 million deficit in our FY24 budget. With current oil price volatility, the legislature will need to take a close look at all budget items.

I look forward to my work on the Senate Finance Subcommittees to review the budgets and advocate for the services that are important for our district and the state. You can review the Governor’s amended budget here: omg.alaska.gov. The House and Senate Finance Committee and subcommittee reports will be posted here once completed: legfin.akleg.gov. Your comments during public testimony hearings are crucial to helping create a balanced budget that provides services and infrastructure needed in our district and state.

2023 AMHS summer schedule

I recently attended a briefing from Department of Transportation (DOT) Commissioner Ryan Anderson on the 2023 AMHS summer schedule.

Currently, DOT does not have enough staff to support the proposed summer schedule. As a result, DOT will not be able to run both the Columbia and the Kennicott, the repercussions of which could be detrimental for coastal communities. If they cancel the Columbia, much of the Inside Passage traffic will not be able to make it to Haines. If they cancel the Kennicott, Prince Rupert and Yakutat will not receive service and there will be no cross-gulf trips between Juneau and Whittier. The commissioner stated the department is working on ways to increase recruitment and provide supplemental services to support communities with their transportation needs. I will be following this issue closely and will keep you updated.

Fisheries closures

If your business was affected by the fishery closures and you are within the designated disaster area, you may be eligible for an SBA Economic Injury Disaster Loan. Disaster areas include Kodiak Island Borough, Kenai Peninsula Borough, Chugach REAA, and others. Call the SBA’s Customer Service Center at (800) 659-2955 or email [email protected] for more information. Deadline to apply is Nov. 9. The Alaska Small Business Development Center is also offering free counseling to help affected businesses in their recovery. Businesses may also contact Ian Grant, Rural Program Director, by emailing [email protected] or 907-463-3789.

Land sales

The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is taking public testimony through March 21 on its upcoming land sales in the Kenai Peninsula Borough, approximately 5 miles northwest of Kasilof near milepost 7 of Cohoe Loop Road. Each year, DNR sell parcels across the state through land sales programs. Find more information on these and other land sales here: http://landsales.alaska.gov.

Nominations for Volunteer of the Year awards

Alaska’s First Lady Rose Dunleavy invites Alaskans to nominate citizens who have performed extraordinary volunteer service. The annual Volunteer of the Year awards recognize volunteers who demonstrate personal commitment to long-term volunteer services and make a significant impact for Alaskans. Deadline is March 6. You can find more information here: https://gov.alaska.gov/first-lady-volunteer-awards/.

2023 PFD applications

Applications for this year’s PFD can be submitted through March 31. Starting this year, Alaskans are encouraged to apply through their My Alaska Account where you can complete both your PFD application and signature form online. You can also still apply through the online site at pfd.alaska.gov but you will then need to print the signature page, sign it, and mail that page in.

A third option are paper applications, which you can complete and mail in. Our LIOs have paper applications available and can help answer questions you may have. If you do apply by mail, please send your application by certified mail, and request a return receipt.

The statewide media and the Dept. of Revenue have recently reported that the IRS has updated their guidance regarding state payments for “the promotion of the general welfare or as a disaster relief payment.”

Last year’s 2022 PFD included an energy relief payment of $662.19 that was part of the $3,284 total disbursement per eligible Alaskan. While the PFD is generally taxable, the $662.19 for energy relief may not be taxable.

Following legislation

Alaska’s public television system produces Gavel Alaska, which broadcasts live and recorded coverage of floor sessions and committee hearings. The programming is also available online at 360north.org.

The Legislature also provides live coverage of committee meetings online at: akleg.gov/LiveNow. Audio/video of past committee hearings can be accessed by going to the committee’s meetings schedule. The committee’s documents are also available there. You can access the committee list at akleg.gov/committee.

Information on my personal legislation and any other bills and resolutions introduced during the 33rd Alaska Legislature can be accessed at akleg.gov/basis/Home/BillsandLaws. To get alerts when certain bills are moving through committees, you can sign up for Bill Tracking at akleg.gov/basis/btmf.

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