Legislators are focused on education, state employee concerns, budget

By Alaska Senate President Gary Steven, R-Kodiak

Hello from Juneau.

The legislative session is now at the halfway mark and the work in the Capitol continues at a busy pace.  The major items on the Senate’s agenda continue to be education funding, recruitment and retention of state employees, and the Fiscal Year 2024 budget.

Education

Many District C constituents have been contacting my office to share their concerns for their school district budgets and state education funding. I value the insight teachers, school staff, parents, care givers, and community members are providing regarding the consequences their school’s face due to flat funding. Our school district board members are diligently working to address budget shortfalls with many having to propose difficult options including shutting down pools, theater programs and cutting teacher positions. Over the last several years, the Legislature has been successful in providing “one-time” funding to boost education budgets, but the Base Student Allocation (BSA) has remained flat.  

Education is a top priority for the Senate Majority, of which I am president. Two bills to raise the Base Student Allocation (BSA) are currently getting hearings: SB 52 calls for a BSA increase of $1,000 and HB 65 calls for a BSA increase of $1,250. Both bills have been referred to their body’s education and finance committees.

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Some comments we have heard from constituents and other legislators is they would like more accountability from school districts before agreeing to a BSA increase. The Senate Education Committee approved changes to SB 52, which would require the Department of Education & Early Development to provide the public information on school progress, academic performance, description of staff training resources provided to school districts, and allow the public to make recommendations relating to improving education. The new version also includes tracking progress of high school graduates and gradual BSA increases over the next three fiscal years to provide school districts with more predictable and stable funding.

K-12 funding in the Department of Education & Early Development budget is also being debated by the Senate and House Finance Committees. As a member of the Senate Finance Education Sub-Committee, we have begun our in-depth look into the department’s budget. I encourage everyone to share public testimony on the budget and BSA bills when the opportunity arises. 

Retirement and benefits

As with most industries in Alaska, the state is having trouble recruiting and retaining experienced workers. The Senate Majority has made it a priority to address this problem and one solution is to take steps to become more competitive in the labor market. I cosponsored SB 88, which creates a new defined benefit system for public employees and teachers and provides an option for current Tier IV employees to convert their defined compensation plan to the new retirement system.

When the state transitioned to a defined contribution plan in 2006, it was believed that retirees would earn the same level of retirement as the prior defined benefits system. However, recent analysis done by the Division of Retirement and Benefits shows that if a state worker who has spent 20 years under the defined contribution plan were to retire today, the employee would only receive 32% of their average earnings, compared to 40.3% under the prior defined benefits system. Analysis shows that peace officers or firefighters would receive $16,000 less under the defined contribution plan after 20 years of service.  

Our current public employee and teacher retirement system shows we are not competitive, and it’s bleeding into the private sector because of the alarming amount of public employee vacancies. To recruit and retain good workers, we need to bring back defined benefits. Many components of SB 88’s new tier are similar to PERS Tier III and TRS Tier II. But, through analysis, revisions, and compromises, components that caused concerns about past retirement systems are addressed. For example, this proposal increases the employee contribution rate from prior pension retirement systems and makes it adjustable from 8%-10% to have employees share in the system’s financial solvency risk. It also maintains the current system’s retiree medical coverage plan in place to keep the state’s liability toward medical costs as low as possible. SB 88 will help our state become more competitive in the workforce and help bring stability to our economy and families back to Alaska.

Senate Bill 88 was referred to the Senate Labor & Commerce and Senate Finance Committees. 

E-cigarettes and tobacco

The Department of Health’s Tobacco Facts 2022 Update notes that vaping is an increasing trend among Alaska high schoolers, citing that 26% of that population regularly use e-cigarettes, and nearly 50% have at least tried vaping, and the trend continues to rise. Alaska has an active underage sales enforcement program which has reduced sales of smoking products to minors, but more steps are required to see Alaska’s tobacco use rate decline, especially among young Alaskans.

I recently sponsored SB 89, which seeks to increase the minimum age to buy, sell, and possess tobacco and E-cigarettes from 19 to 21 years old, and places a point-of-sale (retail sales) tax on electronic smoking products (ESPs). The tax would apply to closed-system ESPs when sealed and sold as a disposable unit, or otherwise only to the liquid when sold separately from other hardware components.

In December 2019, Congress passed, and the President signed into law, a provision raising the national age of sale and possession for all tobacco, nicotine, and ESP products to age 21 without exceptions. Updating Alaska statutes from 19 to 21 to mirror the federal minimum age of sale and possession of these products will allow our state enforcement program to become more effective and our state will be eligible for federal grant funding to support smoking cessation and health education programs.

Senate Bill 89 also implements a 25% sales tax on the consumer for e-cigarettes and smoking products. Tobacco taxes have been proven to reduce youth tobacco use, resulting in fewer kids becoming life-long smokers, which ultimately reduces healthcare costs. In addition to deterring kids from beginning to use these products, tobacco taxes help adults who want to quit, do so.

Senate Bill 89 was referred to the Senate Labor & Commerce and Senate Finance Committees. 

Civics education

My civics education bill, SB 29, passed out of the Senate Education Committee. It adds civics curriculum and assessment into public school statutes and creates the Alaska Civics Education Commission.

You can follow these bills and public testimony opportunities on akleg.gov or contact your regional Legislative Information Office for more information.

Food Security

Food security continues to be a topic of high priority this session. The Senate Finance Committee held a hearing with the Division of Public Assistance to discuss the SNAP and Medicaid Eligibility Redetermination issue. You can watch the March 2 meeting on Akleg.gov.

It is unacceptable to have Alaskan citizens being hospitalized due to malnutrition because of delayed public assistance applications. Recently, the governor has redirected $1.7 million toward Alaska food banks to address current needs. The money is intended to go toward bulk food purchases to help stock food pantries and provide some cards that can be used by Alaskans to purchase food at local stores.

To help reduce the SNAP backlog, the Department of Health also stated that within 90 days Alaskans — whose benefits were scheduled to be redetermined in February, March and April 2023 — will have them automatically rolled over. Thank you to everyone who contacted my office and other legislators, and who reached out to the governor. It was your efforts, along with legislative hearings, that are keeping this issue at the forefront. The Senate will continue to hold hearings with the Department of Health to ensure short- and long-term solutions are being addressed. 

Our Alaska Food Bank, local food banks, the Alaska Farm Bureau, and other organizations, businesses, and volunteers are doing a tremendous job helping Alaskans endure this difficult year with high fuel and food prices and drastic weather. If you or someone you know is having trouble with their public assistance applications, please reach out to the department’s Virtual Call Center at 1-800-478-7778, email them at [email protected], or call my office. Information on community, health, and social services is also available at Alaska 211 by calling toll free: 1-800-478-2221 or online www.Alaska211.rog or email [email protected].

FY 2024 Budget

Once the operating budget passes House Finance and the House Floor, it will go through the same vetting process here in the Senate. 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. 

The House and Senate Finance Committee and subcommittee budget reports are posted here once completed: legfin.akleg.gov

2023 AMHS Summer Schedule

As I shared last month, currently, the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (DOT) does not have enough staff to support the usual summer schedule. As a result, DOT will be keeping the M/V Kennicott and M/V Tazlina offline and placed in a readiness state. DOT is actively recruiting and hiring new staff and will bring these two vessels back online as soon as they are able. As noted previously, I think the changed retirement and benefit system is part of the current staffing recruitment and retention problem. SB 88 is part of the Senate’s solution to this problem by adding back a pension plan option. I continue to follow this issue closely and will keep you updated. You can read more about the summer schedule, recruitment program, and book a reservation at https://dot.alaska.gov/amhs.

2023 PFD Deadline

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 legislative information officers (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.

2022 PFD & IRS TAX INFORMATION: The statewide media and the Department of Revenue have recently reported that the IRS has updated its 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. The state Department of Revenue noted in their press release dated Feb. 17 “that the portion of the dividend that is taxable is $2,621.81 and recipients of the dividend may include that amount as taxable on their 2022 income tax return. However, it is always recommended to discuss this issue tax professional, especially if you have already filed your 2022 return.” 

Pick.Click.Give

Several local nonprofit organizations are participating in the Pick.Click.Give program again this year. The program offers you the opportunity to donate all, or part of your PFD in $25 increments to the nonprofit organization of your choice.

Pick.Click.Give is run by the Alaska Community Foundation in partnership with the Rasmuson Foundation, the Foraker Group, United Way of Anchorage, and the State of Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend Division.

FAFSA:  Free Application for Federal Student Aid

Do you know a student needing financial assistance for college or vocational education? The Alaska Commission on Postsecondary Education is assisting Alaskan students and families with filling out the FAFSA. You can find out more online at https://acpe.alaska.gov/ or call toll free 1-800-441-2962. Additionally, our University of Alaska Foundation provides over $3.5 million in scholarships each year.  Find out more at https://www.alaska.edu/foundation/scholarships/ or call 907-786-1111.

Your Input Matters

I always appreciate hearing from District C constituents on bills, budgets, and other topics affecting the state. If your time allows, I encourage you to add your comments to the record through either written or oral public testimony when budgets, bills and resolutions come before committees.

Throughout the session, Senate District C’s LIOs can provide you with information on committee schedules, public testimony opportunities, and overall general procedures and processes. I encourage you to reach out to the LIOs. They have very knowledgeable staff and are a valuable resource!

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

Contact your area’s LIO for help with accessing these resources.

Please keep in touch

I review the news from all our local communities each day to keep up-to-date on what is happening in your community. Congratulations to all the students who competed recently in the Drama & Debate and Nordic Ski state championship tournaments! And good luck to all the basketball and cheer teams headed to state later this month.

I appreciate hearing from you about legislation and state budgets. Please do not hesitate to reach out if we can be of assistance to you with state agency matters. You can contact us in Juneau at 1-800-821-4925 or 907-465-4925. My email address is [email protected]

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