Education concerns dominate legislative listening session

rmauer@adn.comJanuary 11, 2014 

Anchorage legislators invited the public to a listening session Saturday, and the lawmakers got an earful.

Dozens of city residents among the hundreds of spectators who showed up at Loussac Library took the microphone in three-minute bursts to voice their concerns to the lawmakers with just over a week before the Legislature is due to convene again.

With cuts looming in Anchorage classrooms and among auxiliary school staff like nurses and counselors, the speakers were almost unanimous that public education was getting short shrift from Juneau.

A few others complained about House Bill 77, the pending legislation that would cut back environmental protection for rivers and limit public involvement in permitting on state land.

The lawmakers were also prodded to provide money to finish the engineering buildings under construction at the University of Alaska campuses in Anchorage and Fairbanks. Like the backers of the public schools, they called education an investment in the economy and in the future that the state would be foolish to pass up, even as revenue was declining sharply. Another speaker said he would gladly trade roads for schools.

Despite a call by the Anchorage Tea Party for supporters to "tell them what you think," only one angry speaker complained about traditional Tea Party issues like big government and potential taxation, threatening the legislators with certain defeat if they turned to taxes or dipped into the Permanent Fund for money. The teachers union, on the other hand, rallied its members to attend in droves, and the educators were broadly supported by parents, students and even a resident who said she had no children and no job in Anchorage School District schools.

Eighteen legislators from both parties and both houses, nearly the entire contingent from Anchorage and its suburbs, arrayed themselves around the dais normally used by the Anchorage Assembly.

Democratic Rep. Chris Tuck and Republican Rep. Charisse Millett, the co-chairs of the Anchorage legislative caucus, summoned the speakers from an ever growing pile of sign-up sheets. In all, the names filled 10 pages, a dozen names to a page. The legislators extended the original three-hour session an hour to 1 p.m., yet they were still not able to accommodate everyone who had something to say, even as the crowd dwindled after noon.

The standing-room only audience was generally polite, applauding just about every speaker despite the warnings by Tuck and Millett that clapping itself was using up time.

And there also wasn't much in the way of political theatre. One woman held up a sign accusing legislators who supported last year's oil-tax reductions of being "puppets," and one speaker, former jury selection guru Joe Princiotta, dressed in a top hat and long coat and walked to the podium with a miniature guillotine in which he placed a copy of the tax-reduction bill.

Later, at a much smaller gathering in the restaurant Little Italy in South Anchorage, Millett and Republican Sen. Kevin Meyer held a constituent meeting where local education was also a dominant theme. Meyer, co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said he expected education funding to be one of the major issues of the upcoming session along with strategies for building a gas pipeline. He declared the troubled Susitna River hydroelectric project all but dead, a backstop energy project should a gas line from the North Slope not prove feasible.

Reach Richard Mauer at rmauer@adn.com or 257-4345.

 

Correction: An earlier version of this story described the public Anchorage caucus meeting as a pre-session tradition. It's a tradition in mid-session.

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