OPINION: Better schools lead to better jobs for Alaska

We believe in a state that creates opportunity, with good schools that help students achieve, and good jobs so people can build a future here. Workers deserve a living wage so a full-time worker doesn’t have to raise a child in poverty. But today too many people don’t see a bright future here. That’s why 20,000 more people have left Alaska under this governor than have moved here. It’s a state where the governor doesn’t honor his basic legal commitments to communities, like the statutory obligation to help communities pay for school bond debt. Shifting those state obligations to communities is just an indirect state property tax.

We want to move Alaska forward again. Children deserve a vibrant education. Parents deserve to know this state will create opportunity for their children and grandchildren. We believe in creating opportunity for all, not in leaving the state on autopilot as it hits iceberg after iceberg. We can do much better.

Unlike our most recent two governors, Les Gara has never pushed education cuts. Gov. Mike Dunleavy pushed a record quarter-billion dollars in cuts his first year.

It’s irresponsible to leave a state in austerity, only interrupted by wartime oil prices that temporarily bail us out because innocent people are being killed during a brutal Russian invasion. Once oil prices settle back down, the austerity will start all over again.

Giving away more than $1 billion in oil company tax credit subsidies has made us poor, when we should be building a better future. It puts some of the world’s largest oil companies ahead of children, opportunity, jobs and a future we deserve. According to the last two state Department of Revenue reports, the “Revenue Sourcebook,” we are giving away an estimated $1.2 billion–$1.3 billion to oil companies in tax credits they get whether they invest in Alaska, or take their profits to spend in Libya, or for Exxon until recently, Russia.

Those oil company tax credits, which Les voted to end as a legislator, have left us battling each other about supporting schools, jobs or a Permanent Fund dividend. Here are a few results.

Parents see no commitment to public education in Alaska. According to a 2021 nonpartisan Legislative Research Division Report, support for our schools has fallen more than $120 million behind inflation since 2014.

That, combined with the end of a basic pension plan for police, firefighters, teachers and others, has caused many of our best to leave Alaska for states where they receive a pension. We can restore a pension plan that costs about the same as the failed 401(k) plan we provide, which makes Alaska a training ground for workers. That plan lets workers vest after five years of work, after we’ve trained them, only to see those workers leave. That makes Alaska an expensive training ground for other states.

Les is the only candidate in this race who, when he was in office, sponsored legislation to bring back teacher, police, firefighter and public servant pensions.

We should be building renewable energy projects, repairing ports, airports and roads, and creating good-paying jobs across the state. But Alaska has settled for austerity construction and project budgets that receive roughly 75% less state support that they did in 2014.

Alaska’s construction and project budget used to create jobs for construction workers, engineers, architects, laborers, painters and thousands of others. Those wages were spent at local businesses, and created private sector jobs.

But by giving away more than $1 billion in oil company tax subsidies, at a time oil companies are making wartime profits, the current governor has chosen to leave roughly 4,000 jobs to the side. That’s based on a University of Alaska study that says the $400 million reduction in construction budget spending kills roughly 4,000 jobs in the private and public sector. It’s no surprise we have labor shortages. People have taken their skills and moved to other states.

By decimating the university, which is Alaska’s largest provider of both vocational education and college degrees, we’ve lost a generation of workers. More than 50% of University of Alaska students stay here after graduation — less than 50% stay here if they leave for college or job training. We should do what’s needed to support a university that helps build this economy, not one that sends students to other states.

We both grew up with hardship, each losing a parent and growing up in foster and adoptive homes. Most Alaskans face their own hardship. But we should build a state that creates opportunity, and that allows you to succeed whether you’re born rich or poor.

Les Gara is running for governor. He is a former legislator, and former assistant attorney general on the Exxon Valdez oil spill civil prosecution, and lives in Anchorage. Jessica Cook is a 20-year teacher, former vice president of Alaska’s statewide teachers association, and a lifelong Alaskan who lives in Palmer.

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