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Education, health issues on docket for Legislature

Becky BohrerAssociated Press

JUNEAU -- Education funding, health care exchanges, investments in Iran and sending a message to Washington -- via New York City's most famous green area -- are among the issues lawmakers are expected to tackle this week.

Budget work is also scheduled to continue, as are hearings in Senate Resources related to Alaska's oil production tax. The committee is expected to release an oil tax bill soon.

The Legislature is off to a fast start: Bills that do not pass by the time lawmakers adjourn will die. Plus, lawmakers face a number of big, complex issues that will impact future budgets, including the unfunded pension liabilities and oil taxes.

A bill that would increase education funding is expected to advance from the Senate Education Committee. The measure, SB171, would increase the base student allocation by $125 the first year, to $5,805; $130 the next year and $135 the third year. The bill, sponsored by the committee, is intended to keep pace with inflation, and provide some certainty about funding levels.

Gov. Sean Parnell has said he's open to discussing ways to help school districts meet fixed costs but has problems with increases in formula programs, including raising the base student allocation. He said in tough economic times, domestically and abroad, Alaska must remain as liquid as it can financially.

Sen. Kevin Meyer, co-chair of the Senate Education Committee, said he likes the idea of one-time fixes to help schools with fuel costs, and is open to ideas that the governor or others might have regarding fair and equitable funding to districts. But he said an increase of some kind is needed because education costs are rising.

"I don't know if anybody has the ideal model of education funding," Meyer, R-Anchorage, said. "Until we figure that out, (increasing) the BSA is the only method we have."

House Democrats and National Education Association-Alaska are among those urging an increase in the base student allocation.

The Senate Finance Committee is expected to hear a bill that would establish a health care exchange in Alaska.

An exchange is a marketplace for coverage options. Under the federal health care law, the government could step in and establish exchanges in states where none exist.

Parnell last year refused federal funds for an exchange -- Alaska is among the states challenging the constitutionality of provisions of the law -- and the state has been moving ahead, for now, on its own. A consultant has been chosen to evaluate such things as the cost of the exchange and its impact on the market.

Sen. Hollis French, the lead sponsor of SB70, said the Legislature must be involved in this issue. He said this is a marketplace where tens of thousands of Alaskans could go to buy insurance and it's "too big a change in state policy, too new an idea to leave to the administration." French, D-Anchorage, said he had a staffer put in an "enormous" amount of time, researching the issue and how an exchange could best be established.

Under the federal law, states have until next January to certify that they're able to establish an exchange.

The Senate State Affairs Committee is scheduled to hear a bill that would call for divestment of investment in companies that invest in Iran oil and gas development.

"Iran has been and continues to be a serious threat to our nation's security, and we as Alaskans should be concerned that our own savings are helping finance our nation's enemies," Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, said in a sponsor statement.

SB131 would direct the state revenue commissioner to get a list of companies that have invested an aggregate of $20 million or more in Iran's oil and gas development. Companies would be subject to divestment if they don't explain the investments or divest within 90 days.

Wielechowski said about $79 million is currently invested in such companies. Investments that are pulled would be invested elsewhere.

"It's an important policy to make," Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, said.

Similar bills are pending in the House.

Speaking of the House, the House Resources Committee is slated to hear HJR31, a resolution calling on the president and Congress to acquire New York's Central Park and declare it a wilderness area, off limits to further improvement or development.

The measure, introduced by Rep. Kyle Johansen, R-Ketchikan, got recent national attention. That was his goal: Johansen said he is trying to make a point about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the powers of the federal government and big money influence from Outside on the debate.

Alaska political leaders have been pushing for the government to allow for drilling on the refuge's coastal plain. At least one bill is pending in Congress that would allow for drilling.

Johansen said the resolution isn't to be taken literally; it was written with more of a sarcastic tone -- taking a swipe at the government, which he said could designate Central Park as a wilderness area if it chose -- and environmentalists.

""Alaskans are sick and tired of sitting here and being basically a pawn in the environmentalist fundraising issue," he said. "That's why really, frankly, Manhattan was targeted. It's the epicenter for money and for social and environmental movements. Finding that spot right in the heart of where a lot of the opposition to domestic energy is was the whole point."

At least six co-sponsors have signed onto the measure, including House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, and a Democrat, Rep. Mike Doogan of Anchorage.

More Alaska Legislature coverage
By BECKY BOHRER
Associated Press