A public meeting designed to frame the upcoming state legislative session saw relatively light attendance in Anchorage Saturday, which may have underscored public awareness of a looming fiscal crisis.
The four-hour pre-session caucus meeting at the Z.J. Loussac Public Library in Anchorage drew several dozen people to testify before legislators. Democratic Rep. Chris Tuck, who co-chaired the event, said this meeting had a different tone than past caucus meetings.
"There's going to be less asks, because people know there's less money," Tuck said.
Noticeably few lawmakers attended as well. A total of nine legislators, making up about a third of the overall Anchorage and Chugiak-Eagle River delegation, were present. Tuck and co-chair Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, a Republican, chalked up the low attendance to legislators taking vehicles to the ferry in Whittier for transport to Juneau.
In addition to LeDoux and Tuck, in attendance were Anchorage Republicans Rep. Charisse Millett and Sen. Kevin Meyer; Anchorage Democrats Sen. Berta Gardner, Sen. Bill Wielechowski and Rep. Matt Claman; Eagle River Republican Rep. Dan Saddler; and Wasilla Republican Rep. Cathy Tilton, whose District 12 takes in a piece of Birchwood and Chugiak.
"I'm sorry that so many of us legislators couldn't be here because we need to get our vehicles to Whittier," Gardner told the handful of people who stayed until the meeting ended around 1 p.m. "It's not a lack of interest when somebody isn't sitting here."
This is only the second time that a pre-session January meeting has happened, Tuck said. He said the goal is to start off "on the right foot" with constituents. A more traditional caucus meeting will be taking place in February or March, around the mid-session mark.
That meeting will likely draw a bigger crowd -- by then, legislation and issues will be much more fleshed out, said Andy Holleman, president of the Anchorage Education Association, which has a membership of about 3,500. Holleman asked the legislators Saturday to support teaching staff, but he said afterward that there are not too many particular requests his organization has at this point, without pre-filed bills or a known dollar amount for the desired per-student funding.
"It's just early," Holleman said.
He also said he didn't fault legislators for not showing up.
"To be honest, I applaud the Legislature, and I'm surprised this event exists," Holleman said. "They don't have to do this."
Members of Great Alaska Schools, a grassroots group of parents and education funding advocates, wore red and asked legislators to work to stabilize education funding. Others walked up to the podium to voice support for changes to state retirement plans, a bill to create smoke-free workplaces and funding for individual nonprofit organizations. About 50 people in all signed up to testify, legislative aides said.
Shalon Harrington, the external affairs director for Mayor Dan Sullivan, started off the meeting by running through the list of priority capital funding requests for the city, which includes the Port of Anchorage and a new midtown transit center. Afterward, a presentation from Ed Graff, superintendent of the Anchorage School District, lasted about 45 minutes. Legislators peppered Graff with a series of pointed questions about the district's budget and the pool of applicants for teaching positions.
Beth Nordlund, executive director of the Anchorage Parks Foundation, asked the caucus to consider granting funds to fix deteriorating footbridges along Anchorage's trail system. Documented in two separate reports released by the city in December, the bridge issue has become a top maintenance priority for the Parks Foundation and the Anchorage Parks and Recreation Department.
Nordlund asked the legislators to commit to provide $1.5 million to improve the bridges, as long as Anchorage voters first approve a matching $1.5 million bond package in the April municipal election.
Many of those testifying were advocating for some kind of funding, but Carolyn Ramsey, of the Citizens for Responsible Development U-Med group, wanted funding to be taken away.
She and several others asked legislators to rethink funding a planned road linking south Bragaw Street and Elmore Road through the University of Alaska Anchorage and Alaska Pacific University campuses.
LeDoux said after the meeting that she didn't hear any surprises in the subject matter of the testimony. But she was impressed with some of the suggestions people made for navigating the state's multibillion-dollar budget shortfall.
"Both the suggestions, and the fact that the public is very aware of the budget," she said.