JUNEAU — The 33rd Alaska Legislature convened its second regular legislative session in Juneau on Tuesday, with lawmakers focused on education, energy issues and worker retention.
As expected, one of lawmakers’ first orders of business was a long-odds attempt to override Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s veto of $87 million in education funding. An Alaska House vote calling for a joint session failed in a 20-20 split. House minority members say they will continue attempting to convene a joint session, in which lawmakers could consider overriding the veto, until the Saturday deadline.
School administrators have said Alaska’s public education sector is in crisis after high inflation and six years of virtually flat state funding. The Railbelt faces a looming energy crisis after Hilcorp, the dominant natural gas producer in Cook Inlet, informed electrical utilities in 2022 that their gas contracts would not automatically be renewed. And state services are suffering amid worker retention challenges and continued outmigration.
Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, said Tuesday after the Senate floor session that the “very top” priority for the 17-member bipartisan majority caucus is increasing public school funding, followed by establishing a new public sector pension plan and addressing the Railbelt’s energy needs.
The Senate’s pension plan bill stalled in the Senate Finance Committee last year, but Senate leaders are planning to continue work on the legislation, which is also supported by members of the House minority. The Senate passed legislation in 2023 to increase the Base Student Allocation — the state’s per-student school funding formula — by $680 at a cost of $175 million — but the bill stalled in the House, where majority members support a significantly smaller funding increase.
House Speaker Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla, said “the No. 1 priority” for the Republican-led majority caucus “will be to figure out how we reduce the cost of energy all across Alaska.” Majority members said policies are currently being worked on to reduce power bills, as ratepayers in Southcentral and Interior Alaska expect to face soaring costs if utilities move to import natural gas.
Lawmakers in both chambers said their priorities were in line with efforts to turn the tide on 11 straight years of net outmigration.
Alaska Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy said in a prepared statement Monday that his focus this legislative session is affordability in areas like food security, health care and child care, among others. Some of the governor’s bills are still being written, a spokesperson for his office said Tuesday.
Legislators convened in Juneau on a new $84,000 salary — a 67% increase from lawmakers’ previous salary of $50,400. An independent salary commission approved the pay raise for lawmakers last year, alongside a roughly 20% pay raise for the governor and his cabinet. Lawmakers allowed the pay increase to go into effect despite the fact that all members of the commission were fired by the governor or abruptly resigned in the days leading up to the vote last March.
A vote on holding a joint session to consider overriding Dunleavy’s veto of education funding failed in the House on a 20-20 split Tuesday, foreshadowing the impact of the narrow division between the Republicans in the majority and the mostly Democratic minority on negotiating policy initiatives.
A joint session would allow lawmakers to vote on overriding Dunleavy’s veto of around $87 million in school funding.
The Legislature has five days from convening to hold a joint session to debate overriding the governor’s school funding veto, which requires a three-quarters vote of state legislators. House Minority Leader Calvin Schrage, an Anchorage independent, introduced a motion to hold a joint session Thursday, arguing that extra funding could provide “immediate” relief for Alaska’s 53 school districts.
Three House majority members who represent rural districts joined minority members in voting in favor of the joint session. They include Rep. Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, Rep. Neal Foster, D-Nome, and Rep. CJ McCormick, D-Bethel. Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, who doesn’t sit with either caucus, also voted in favor of the joint session.
All Republican members of the majority caucus voted against holding a joint session, including the body’s newest member, Republican Rep. Thomas Baker of Kotzebue. Baker replaced independent Rep. Josiah Patkotak of Utqiagvik last year after Patkotak was elected mayor of the North Slope Borough.
Advocates of the veto override appeared not to lose hope after Tuesday’s failed attempt at calling a special session, despite the long odds. Schrage said there is no limit on the number of times the House can vote on calling a joint session.
“I’m not one to grandstand. I’m not one to die on a hill over an issue. But this is an issue I will die over,” Schrage said in a floor speech.
House Majority Leader Dan Saddler, an Eagle River Republican, said after the floor session that the majority is “going to accommodate the desires we heard expressed on the floor.” Tilton said at a press conference that the Republican-led majority does not support overriding the one-time school funding veto.
A focus for education advocates is permanently increasing the formula used for calculating state education funding, called the Base Student Allocation. Over the weekend, a rally was held in Anchorage with hundreds chanting, “Raise the BSA!” Education advocates and school administrators say it has been difficult to attract and keep teachers in Alaska, as class sizes have grown, and as the rising fixed costs of building maintenance have eaten into budgets for arts and sports programs.
The House Rules Committee has scheduled a rare hearing Wednesday to hear a bill that already passed the Senate last year and includes a permanent annual $175 million school funding increase, alongside a requirement that districts provide fast internet across Alaska.
Rules Committee Chair Rep. Craig Johnson, an Anchorage Republican, said the majority would amend that bill, Senate Bill 140, to lower the BSA boost from $680 to $300, which would translate to around $77 million annually in a permanent education funding boost — less than the one-time $87 million increase that remained in the budget last year after the governor’s veto.
Critics of a larger increase to the BSA say that boosting funding for schools will not necessarily address poor outcomes for Alaska students, who consistently rank at the bottom of the nation in reading and math performance. Johnson said the new SB 140 would include measures to improve accountability for state funding and other measures, like a bonus for teachers proposed by the governor.
Schrage said that the majority’s BSA proposal would “fall far short” of what Alaska educators need. Several groups representing Alaska schools and educators say they need a BSA increase of more than $1,400 — or nearly five times the amount favored by Republican House leaders — to account for inflation since 2017, the last year that the formula was significantly increased.
Stevens said the House’s actions on that bill would be a “bellwether of where things are” between the two legislative chambers over school funding.
The governor introduced a dozen executive orders on the first day of the session — the majority of which would eliminate existing independent boards and commissions and transfer their authority to the governor’s administration.
The orders would eliminate the Alaska Council on Emergency Medical Services, the board of massage therapists, the board of barbers and hairdressers, the board of certified direct-entry midwives, the Criminal Justice Information Advisory Board, the Recreation Rivers Advisory Board, the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve Advisory Council, the Wood-Tikchik State Park Management Council, and the Alaska Safety Advisory Council.
Another order would make all members of the Marine Highways Operations Board, which oversees state ferries, subject to the governor’s nomination. Currently, half of the board’s eight members are appointed by the Senate president and House speaker.
One of the orders would create a new board to oversee the Alaska Energy Authority. That oversight is currently done by the board of the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, or AIDEA. The new board overseeing the energy authority would be appointed by the governor.
Jeff Turner, a spokesperson for Dunleavy, said in a written statement that the orders would “transfer functions from boards and commissions to the relevant state department, which is in the best interest of efficient administration.”
“One of Governor Dunleavy’s priorities is to make state government as efficient and effective as possible,” Turner said.
The orders will go into effect in July unless lawmakers vote on disapproving them within 60 days of their introduction, or by mid-March.
Senate President Stevens said that in some cases, the removal of boards “makes a lot of sense,” adding, “Others are much more complex, so we’re anxious to get into the details there and find out what we can support.”
House and Senate relations
The 2023 session ended acrimoniously between the House and Senate, after the Senate combined both the operating and capital budget bills into a single bill. Republican House majority members complained about being held hostage by the Senate’s take-it-or-leave-it approach to passing the budget.
On the Senate floor, Sen. Robb Myers, a North Pole Republican and one of three senators who are not part of the majority, said he hoped for a more respectful relationship between the two legislative chambers. He said lawmakers should remember that “it takes two to tango.”
Stevens said there had been meetings between House and Senate leadership in the interim and that “hopefully, we can repair any bad feelings that may have occurred at the end of the session,” adding, “It’s difficult to dance, but I think we’re up to the job.”
Asked if anything had changed in the dynamic between the chambers since the Legislature was last in session, Tilton said the House majority had conversations with Senate leadership about avoiding similar situations in the future.
“Well, I guess, ‘Fool me once — shame on you. Fool me twice — shame on me,’” Tilton said.
Sean Maguire reported from Juneau and Iris Samuels reported from Anchorage.