Alaska should extend much-deserved accommodations to military families

Alaska has a human resource that we don’t properly recognize — or do enough for.

I’m speaking of military families, and more particularly of military spouses who bring valuable professional skills to our state but who are often unemployed or underemployed because their professional licenses and certifications are not recognized here.

Overall, the defense department’s 2019 “Blue Star Families Military Family Lifestyle Survey” found that 49% of military spouses nationally indicated that financial issues were the top cause of stress for their families, and 48% were concerned about employment.

Of employed military spouses, 75% were considered underemployed.

The pandemic exacerbated much of this. Surveys found 17% of military families lost jobs during the pandemic, on top of 24% unemployed before the pandemic.

This is a national problem. Military families move frequently because of periodic rotations.

However, the problems, and financial pressures, are more extreme in Alaska because living costs are high and most families, military or not, need two incomes. The relatively small size of our economy limits job opportunities, too.

What’s ironic is that many skills held by service spouses, such as in education and health care, are sorely needed here.

It isn’t just a financial matter, either. If a highly-trained spouse can’t find work, it undermines morale, and that’s a big concern for the Department of Defense.

How well a state treats military families is a factor in decisions the defense department makes on base closings and openings, too. Since the military is vital to our state’s economy, we should care about this.

In a visit to Alaska, the commandant of the U.S Coast Guard, Adm. Karl Schultz, told Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Gov. Mike Dunleavy that helping spouses find jobs in coastal communities with Coast Guard stations is one of his top priorities.

State officials and legislators, to their credit, are aware of this and steps are being taken. On a national level, Murkowski is now sponsor, with Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, of the Military Spouse Licensing Relief Act that would facilitate recognition of licenses and certificates across state lines.

In Alaska, Dunleavy has proposed reciprocal licensing for with other states, but the Legislature has not acted on the idea. For some time, Alaska’s Division of Business Licensing has had an expedited professional license application for military spouses.

It’s uncertain, however, whether the independent licensing boards give this a priority — they are not required to.

This year the Legislature passed a bill requiring that the boards report annually on how many service spouse applications are applied for and approved.

Assuming the governor approves Senate Bill 12, which one can expect he will, this would shine a light on any laggard professional board, which should embarrass its members.

This is just a start, but let’s give credit to Fairbanks state Sen. Scott Kawasaki, a Democrat, who has sponsored this bill for years and finally got it passed. In the House, Rep. Chris Tuck of Anchorage, also a Democrat, has sponsored a similar bill.

The bill has 11 cosponsors in the Senate, Democrat and Republican.

As limited as this bill is in what it does, it’s surprising to me it has taken several years to get it passed. This isn’t because anyone opposed it but simply that it was given a low priority, at least until this year. That is not to our credit.

What’s the problem with professional licensing? It is that decisions on licensing are made by independent boards that, while appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Legislature, operate independently to set standards and approve new applications.

There are reasons for this. The review of training and qualifications is a serious consumer and public protection matter, and governors and legislators shouldn’t short-circuit the process. After all, who is better qualified to supervise a profession than its peers?

On the other hand, there’s always a lurking suspicion that professional boards can be too protective of their turf and that stringent rules might be a cover for limiting the entry of new competition.

Meanwhile, let’s also give credit to two other legislators who picked up the ball with initiatives to ease the stress on service families:

Freshman Rep. David Nelson, an Anchorage Republican, got a bill that extends state employment hiring preferences to military spouses and dependent children through the House. HB 125, now in the Senate, will be considered in 2022.

The bill is widely supported, with 16 cosponsors in the House, including many Democrats.

Another bill, HB 53 by Rep. Ken McCarty, Republican of Eagle River-Chugiak, helps military families with children transferring to Alaska.

The bill gives schools flexibility to allow military children to pre-register in school before they physically arrive and officially become residents. Currently many military children miss early registration deadlines. This is a real sore point for service families. It is particularly a problem for high-school age children who need certain classes to fulfill graduation requirements but who are unable to get into the classes because they are full.

HB 53 also passed the House and is now in the Senate, and has six cosponsors, including several Democrats.

Given their momentum this year, it’s quite likely that HB 125 and HB 53 will make it across the finish line next year. Combined with Sen. Kawasaki’s SB 12, which is already through the gate, Alaska is sending clear welcome signal to military families.

It’s overdue.

Tim Bradner is publisher of the Alaska Legislative Digest and Alaska Economic Report.

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