Hard work, dedication, and the will to succeed--these are the values that built and pioneered Alaska. As elected leaders, it's our responsibility to put these values to work in everything we do.
Our priorities for this legislative session center on three key issues: energy, education and reducing the deficit. If we tackle these issues with Alaskan values in mind, we all will benefit.
The number one energy issue for this session is the latest natural gas pipeline proposal. No one is more enthusiastic than we are about getting Alaska's gas to our homes and businesses, and to global markets. However, Alaska's long history of starts and stops on a gas line should keep anyone from getting too giddy about this year's model. Moreover, this administration's approach to oil and gas issues gives us a healthy skepticism about whether Alaska will get a fair deal. In short we say "Gas line Yes, Giveaway No."
Remember, we are an Owner State. The concept was developed by statehood proponents as they confronted skeptics who doubted Alaska's ability to stand on its own two feet economically. The answer was to give Alaskans control of our vast resources. We hold those resources in trust for future Alaskans, and we will not apologize for working diligently to maximize the benefit of those resources for all. Any gas line we build must return a fair economic benefit to the people of this state.
When it comes to education, we continue the long Democratic tradition of fighting for our public schools. There is no better engine of prosperity than an educated population. Cuts to school classrooms around the state put into sharp focus this administration's misguided approach to education. The cuts are not theoretical; in Anchorage 159 teachers are on the chopping block, in Fairbanks the number is 60, and in Juneau 30. Indeed, Ed Graff, the school superintendent in Anchorage said the cuts there are "unlike anything I've seen in my 23 years with the Anchorage School District."
We continue to push for more education funding this session. The state needs a real increase in the base student allocation. Schools need money they can count on.
We also promote education reforms that are proven to work. The most important of these is early childhood education. The best bang for the buck is statewide, voluntary pre-kindergarten. Forty years of research shows that children who attend pre-K perform better on standardized tests and have higher IQs and higher rates of high school graduation. Further, the benefits extend beyond education. As adults, children who go to pre-K commit fewer crimes than those who don't. Alaska's own Institute of Social and Economic Research found no other program that reduced the crime rate as much as pre-K.
One reform we will not support is diverting public school funds to private and religious schools. Draining funds from our public schools will only weaken them. And in contrast to pre-K, the evidence that school vouchers improve educational outcomes is hotly contested. We believe Alaska's public schools, open to all, are the place to put our limited public education funds.
Finally, we cannot ignore the enormous deficit in the state's budget. Brought on by last year's oil tax rewrite, the state is now facing up to $2 billion in annual shortfalls. Worse, the administration's own revenue forecasts do not show new oil coming to the rescue. It's red ink as far as the eye can see. The first steps to a balanced budget are to reverse last year's oil tax giveaway and continue the dialogue on better ways to get more oil production without selling our resources for less than they are worth. Let's do it now, before our savings run out.
Although we face big challenges, we are optimistic about the state's future. Democratic lawmakers are focused on making Alaska a place where developing our resources supports innovation, the highest quality education, and a thriving economy where jobs are rewarding.
Hard work, dedication and the will to succeed will help us continue to build a vibrant future for Alaska.
Sen. Hollis French is the Senate Democratic leader and Representative Chris Tuck is the House Democratic leader in the Alaska Legislature. Both are from Anchorage.