Opinions

OPINION: Sharing what we learned to help move Alaska forward

Jessica Cook, Les Gara

We congratulate Gov. Mike Dunleavy and our new lieutenant governor, Nancy Dahlstrom, on their election. That gives them, and a new Legislature, the right to craft solutions to the state’s problems. We wish them strength as they address major education, mental health, affordable housing and child care problems people face across this state.

From more than a year of conversations with people of all walks of life across Alaska, we heard concerns and solutions we’ll share. Many of the concerns and problems we heard most loudly are shared across the state. That will hopefully build consensus for action.

There is one undebatable truth I hope leaders will recognize. These are major problems that can’t be solved for free. Since 2014, Alaskans have been forced to battle for inadequate funds, and to fight between education support, a strong Permanent Fund dividend, public safety or support for needed infrastructure like harbors, roads and the modern renewable energy projects needed across the state.

Progress will be impossible if Alaskans are again forced to fight each other for what they need, whether it’s strong schools, a strong PFD, or needed infrastructure and erosion prevention projects necessitated by global warming and increasingly violent storms. We can’t keep pitting Alaskans against each other.

Our ideas on revenue to solve these problems — ending $1.2 billion in unaffordable oil company tax subsidies — are not the only options. The governor won this election. He and the Legislature have the right to work on the fiscal plan they feel is appropriate.

Rural Alaskans have shared problems that don’t get heard loudly in much of the state, including that more than 50 communities have no police at all, in a state with high rates of sexual assault. That needs to be solved.

There’s an education crisis in nearly every community in the state. The problems facing education and public safety call for some similar policy responses.

ADVERTISEMENT

Schools cannot attract and keep teachers as school funding, and therefore salaries have lagged. That’s compounded when it makes housing unaffordable for educators and their families, especially in smaller communities with housing crises that are worse than in larger communities also facing acute affordable housing shortages.

Almost every public safety and education official we’ve met says they lose teachers and police to states that offer a pension benefit Alaska uniquely doesn’t offer. Alaska can’t compete for teachers and police anymore.

It’s convenient, but in most cases dishonest, to blame local school boards for our education crisis. State school funding has lagged by roughly $150 million behind inflation since 2014. Under state statute local school funding is capped at a percentage of state funding. The more state funding lags, the less money local communities are allowed to contribute to help their students and schools. Students bear the brunt of this in lost opportunity.

With uncompetitive pay and benefits we get teacher and police tourism. People come here for a few years, fish, hunt and hike, and then leave for better pay and benefits in the Lower 48.

Alaska’s foster care system is harming children and families worse than ever. The state now starts new Office of Children’s Services caseworkers at $25 per hour and has lowered job qualifications, so workers need no relevant education or work experience. That leads to damaging mistakes and more trauma for children. We understand this has been an attempt to save money. Let’s admit it’s not working.

We’re losing needed foster parents. Foster parent recruitment has come to a standstill even though it’s required by statute. Many foster youths remain in hospital rooms because there is no available home for them. That’s inhumane.

Low-wage, inexperienced child and family protection workers cannot be expected to know what children and families need. Today, roughly 60% of these low-wage workers quit within a year.

Perhaps the most silent problem facing Alaskans is the lack of a needed mental health workforce. That harms children suffering from life-damaging problems, and those battling addictions and other life-threatening crises.

Finally, most Alaskans live on the road system. From damaged fish runs and the damage caused by Outside factory trawlers, to schools and mental health, the problems faced off the road system are in many cases more pressing.

These problems beg for strong “grow your own” solutions. Police, teachers and mental health professionals from Nome, Bethel, or Kodiak, for example, are better for the community, and for creating local job opportunities, than seeking Outside workers who don’t know these communities.

We wish Gov. Dunleavy and Lt. Gov. Dahlstrom well in navigating a road ahead that would be difficult no matter who won this election.

Les Gara and Jessica Cook were Democratic candidates for governor and lieutenant governor, respectively, in the 2022 Alaska general election.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

Sponsored