From left to right: Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka and Sen. Natasha Von Imhof, R-Anchorage, speak at the Southeast Conference mis-session summit at Elizabeth Peratovich Hall on Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020. (Peter Segall |Juneau Empire)

From left to right: Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka and Sen. Natasha Von Imhof, R-Anchorage, speak at the Southeast Conference mis-session summit at Elizabeth Peratovich Hall on Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020. (Peter Segall |Juneau Empire)

Capitol Live: Senate leadership at Southeast Conference

Summary: Bipartisanship and civil discourse has been one of the distinguishing features of this senate, Giessel says. But none of the senators have set aside their core values. The main goal of the senate this session will be passing a balanced and responsible budget, and public support will be key to that, according to Begich.

Read more about what happened at the conference below:

[Gov’s chief of staff says getting ferries back in service is a top priority]

[Juneau could clear 1.5 million tourists by 2021]

1:42 p.m.

Responding to a question about the governor’s comments during the State of the State speech about renewable energy.

Giessel says the state is looking at smaller nuclear generators for smaller communities, particularly in rural Alaska. Other energy sources are river/tidal energy and wind energy, she says.

While renewable energy is certainly worth looking into, Giessel says, they come with their own negatives that need to be considered. She gives the example of maintenance costs and disposal once those mechanism need to be decommissioned.

1:31 p.m.

Turning back to AMHS, Stedman says that the reshaping committee recently announced by Gov. Mike Dunleavy will first take a look at the various routes, says.

The Legislature did not cut back the funding for vessel maintenance, Stedman says, that was a reduction made by the governor. He says the maintenance needs of the fleet was not properly conveyed to the Legislature and thus proper appropriations were not made. They weren’t made because the vote failed, he said, but because the legislature was not aware of the need.

Sens. Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, Natasha Von Imhof, R-Anchorage and Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, speak at Southeast Conference’s mid-session summit at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall on Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020. (Peter Segall | Juneau Empire)

Sens. Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, Natasha Von Imhof, R-Anchorage and Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, speak at Southeast Conference’s mid-session summit at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall on Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020. (Peter Segall | Juneau Empire)

1:21 p.m.

Giessel says that the Permanent Fund must be protected.

“The fund itself is the renewable resource,” she says, and that she and her Senate colleagues will be attempting this session to transfer potentially upwards of $14 billion into the corpus of the Fund to help grow the returns on fund.

All the senators have made reference to “oversized” dividends being an obstacle to growing the fund.

1:15 p.m.

The governor’s budget included a full $3,000 Permanent Fund Dividend, Von Imhof says, which will cost the state $2 billion. She would like to re-frame that as a $2 billion distribution that is not going to capital projects.

She says she would like to receive written or verbal testimony from citizens which say what level of dividend they are willing to accept in order to fund schools, infrastructure and other projects. Her suggestion gets a brief round of applause from the audience.

1:02 p.m.

Giessel, who says this is her first time speaking to Southeast Conference, says that one of her greatest challenges as Senate President is convincing her district that the Alaska Marine Highway System is essential. Von Imhof, too says that as she represents her district but also the whole state as co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee. Finding an adequate balance that serves all Alaskans is essential, she says.

12:50 p.m.

Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, Sen. Natasha Von Imhof, R-Anchorage, and Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, have arrived to speak to the conference. Sen. Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, is supposed to join the panel but has not yet arrived.

12:34 p.m.

Murkowski says she has secured language that would require labeling on genetically modified fish so it doesn’t become confused with Alaska’s fresh caught fish. Funding has been appropriated for trans-boundary mining water quality monitoring.

She says she has also been working to limit the price of certain medical devices as well.

Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, says in a different video says Alaska needs to fix its “broken federal permitting system.” It’s important not to cut corners on the environment but that would allow projects in a timely manner.

The Trump Administration has recently issued an administrative order which would accelerate the National Environmental Protection Act review process.

Many of the elements in the order comes from Sullivan’s Rebuild America Now Act which he introduced, he says.

He’ll be introducing the Visit America Act, which would create an assistant secretary position within the Department of Commerce that would advocate for tourism within the government.

12:20 p.m.

Howard Sherman, a vice president for Norwegian Cruise Lines was scheduled to speak at noon, but his flight has been delayed because of weather. He’ll (hopefully) speak at noon, Wednesday, according to staff at the Southeast Conference Mid-session Summit. Instead a brief video recorded by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, will be played. The video was recorded this morning, according to Robert Venables, executive director of Southeast Conference.

Summary: There are a lot of different voices coming into this bill, but it still has bipartisan support as it moves forward. Several of the speakers emphasized that though student retention received a lot of attention today, improving student reading and training teachers in science based reading methods was a larger part of the bill.

10:30 a.m.

Department of Education and Early Development Commissioner Michael Johnson is now speaking to the committee. He says first of all, retention has gotten a lot of attention in this meeting but this is not a retention bill. Retention is an element of the bill but not its goal.

Helping students learn to read, and providing educators with the tools they need to help students succeed is the goal, Johnson said. Training teachers to be able to identify when students show reading deficiencies is a critical component of the bill.

10:15 a.m.

Galanos says teacher readiness is an essential component and that teachers need to be trained in science-based reading. How to teach reading is very difficult, she says, and will need a lot of focus and support moving forward.

Begich says he believes that there are components in the bill that provide for that, and that Gov. Mike Dunleavy has included a significant financial commitment to providing teacher training.

10 a.m.

A school expert from Colorado, Angie Galanos, is speaking via phone about that state’s pre-K and early elementary reading programs. Colorado’s policy focuses on screening kids for reading deficiencies so that interventions can be made before students fall too far behind.

Early literacy grants in Colorado have yielded very positive results. But despite “mountains of research,” teachers are still not entirely sure the best way to teach students to read, Galanos says.

She urges Alaska to consider per-pupil funding and budget review of how funds are being spent. Alaska’s bill allocates money district wide, rather than per pupil.

9:50 p.m.

Retention doesn’t necessarily cost more, Winters says, because when students are retained at an early age they don’t necessarily receive and extra year of schooling. Many students who are not retained at an early age, Winters says, may be retained at a later age.

Hughes asked if there are extra societal costs, such as future enrollment in welfare programs or other expenses that fall on the state. Winters says those costs are extremely hard to measure. The academic benefits of retention outweigh the costs to the state, Winters says.

9:35 a.m.

The next speaker is Professor Marcus Winters from Boston University, who is speaking by phone.

Winters has done research on retention policies in Florida. Winters’ research has focused on students who were “just” below or above the retention score in the testing. So essentially the same students, but some were held back while others moved on.

The effects of retention drop over time, Winters said. There’s a lot of pressure on students in the testing grade, but as students age the effects of retention doesn’t affect things like high school completion or college entry. But there are positive effects on GPA and decreases in remedial courses.

9:26 a.m.

The committee is discussing the merits of retention. There is mixed research about the effectiveness about holding students back. Sen. Shelly Hughes, R-Palmer, says there are psychological effects to holding students back but there are also educational problems involved with promoting students who are not ready academically for higher grades.

“I don’t think we should fear a proficiency based policy,” Hughes says.

9:15 a.m.

Griffin is presenting on differences between different state policies, with a focus on Florida which was able to raise its testing scores over a number of years.

There was a bit of back and forth between Sen. Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, and Griffin over what Begich says was a misrepresentation about his comments regarding the scores of Alaska Natives.

Begich said he had not suggested that Alaska Natives were bringing down state scores, but that claim had unfairly followed him in the past.

The controversy, Griffin said, stemmed from an editorial from political blogger Dermot Cole which made the claim about the scores of Alaska Natives and low reading scores.

Griffin said he did not intend to make that suggestion, and disagreed with Cole’s premise. Both Begich and Griffin agreed to try and put the issue behind them and work together.

9 a.m. — At the Capitol

The Senate Education Committee is meeting to hear a presentation on SB 6, better known as the Alaska Reads Act. The bill has received strong bipartisan support in its roll out but the actual details of the law still need to be hammered out.

This morning the committee is hearing from Bob Griffin, senior education research fellow from the Alaska Policy Forum, a libertarian think tank.

• Contact reporter Peter Segall at 523-2228 or

Southeast Conference

Gov. Mike Dunleavys Chief of Staff Ben Stevens speaks at the Southeast Conferences Mid-Session Summit on Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020. (Ben Hohenstatt | Juneau Empire)

Gov. Mike Dunleavys Chief of Staff Ben Stevens speaks at the Southeast Conferences Mid-Session Summit on Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020. (Ben Hohenstatt | Juneau Empire)

9:20 a.m.

We’ll be taking a break from live conference coverage for a bit, but we will be back for the lunch keynote.

Howard Sherman, executive vice president of Norwegian Cruise Lines is on the agenda to speak. Afterward, state Senate leadership will speak.

9:10 a.m.

Schijvens said visitors are expected to spend nearly $8 million in 2020.

9:07 a.m. Meilani Schijvens, owner and director of Rain Coast Data, is giving a Southeast by the Numbers presentation.

She said the top story told by data in Southeast is the loss of state jobs. Over the past eight years, Schijvens said almost 1,000 jobs have been lost.

“We’re being pummeled here in Southeast Alaska on state job losses,” Schijvens said.

Conversely, she said the tourism industry continues to add jobs.

She said the industry now represents 18% of all jobs in Southeast.

Schijvens said 1.54 million are projected to come to Southeast Alaska in the summer of 2021. About 1.42 million are expected this year.

She said both ships and the visitor industry season are growing.

“If we look from 2019 to 2021, we’re going to increase cruise ship passengers by 16%,” she said.

8:55 a.m.

Stevens was asked about the governor’s comments about the importance of renewable energy from his recent State of the State address.

“He just wants to be at the leading edge of it,” Stevens said.

He said he could not speak to any specific planned projects.

8:45 a.m.

Stevens said economic development and a sustainable spending limit are points of emphasis for the administration.

He said a spending limit would tie-in to predictability that could make Alaska more attractive to investors.

“All administrations go through an evolution, a progression,” Stevens said. “The governor has gone through an adjustment, gone through an evolution in how he’s addressing the budget issue.”

He said the reality is there is no single entity that can pass a budget.

Stevens said the administration will work with and listen to the Legislature to get a “mechanism” in place that could limit spending and potentially lead to investment.

8:35 a.m.

Stevens said “the Juneau access” project is still on the table. He said the position of the administration is the further north the road goes, the better.

8:30 a.m.

Snowy weather means the agenda for the Southeast Conference Mid-Session Summit, which is taking place today and tomorrow at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall, will see some changes, but its morning keynote speaker remains the same — Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s Chief of Staff Ben Stevens.

Stevens’ early focus is the Alaska Marine Highway System.

Stevens said the No. 1 priority for the Alaska Marine Highway System is to get boats operable.

“I can tell you, we recognize the issues, we recognize the importance,” Stevens said.

He said there will be money included for ferry repairs in the upcoming supplemental budget.

“It’s the perfect storm for the Marine Highway System, and we’re trying to work our way through the storm,” Stevens said.

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