Assuming there’s still a free press by the end of the year — some say we’re already puppet masters of the current presidential administration, others worry we’ll be repressed if the former president returns to office — many of the topics that will make local headlines are predictable, although the specifics are certainly not.
That includes the elections, of course, where the chief executive’s seat will be on the line — which as a Juneau newspaper is of course a reference to the mayor’s race, with incumbent Beth Weldon eligible to seek a third elected term as a member of the Assembly if she chooses to do so.
But first will come local and statewide political battles about school funding (both how much the state provides and how local officials struggle with a looming deficit), another mass influx of cruise ship tourists, watchful eyes on Suicide Basin and other potential natural disaster areas, and ongoing municipal controversies ranging from redevelopment of Telephone Hill to a new compost facility.
The following, in roughly chronological order, are some of the major stories expected to make the biggest local headlines in 2024.
Education, public employees, PFDs and more at the Capitol
The coming legislative session starting in mid-January will likely look a lot like last year’s, as many of the same major issues and bills are pending, so the question is how many will be resolved one way or another before the 33rd Alaska Legislature adjourns.
Aside from the ever-present battle about the amount of the Permanent Fund Dividend, education funding — especially the per-pupil formula — is likely to be at center stage in the public budget debate. Gov. Mike Dunleavy is again proposing no increase to the formula that has gone essentially unchanged since 2017, instead favoring alternatives such as teacher retention bonuses and directing funds to charter/homeschooling programs.
The bipartisan Senate majority, which prevailed in last year’s budget battle and passed a $680 one-time increase to the $5,960 Base Student Allocation (only to see Dunleavy veto half the increase) is again putting a permanent increase among its top agenda items. State Sen. Jesse Kiehl, a Juneau Democrat, said last month the hope is increased public pressure during an election year will allow the increase to prevail and remain intact in the budget Dunleavy signs.
Education curriculum could also reemerge as a major issue — also with heightened emphasis in an election year — after a so-called “parental rights” bill introduced by Dunleavy imposing strict rules on sex/gender references in public schools resulted in hundreds of people testifying in a series of hearings over many hours. A House version of the bill was modified late in the session into something markedly different — removing some of the most notable transgender restrictions, while requiring parental approval of their children’s entire curriculum — but proposals similar to the original could easily resurface.
Another declared priority of the Senate majority — but not the Republican-led House majority — is reviving a pension-style retirement system for state employees instead of the existing 401(k)-like approach, an effort that stalled last session. However, while advocates of the change say poor benefits are a key reason the state is suffering a shortage of key employees, studies during the session about the fiscal impacts to the state and affected employees raised numerous complex questions some legislative leaders said will present challenges during the session ahead.
The PFD, as always, will be another fiery election year fight, as Dunleavy is again proposing a “statutory” dividend of about $3,400 that would result in a $1 billion budget deficit, with a total of $2.3 billion being spent on PFDs. The Senate majority, in prevailing in a similar faceoff last year, passed a budget with a $1,312 PFD, the one-time education funding increase and a small surplus.
Dunleavy, when presenting his budget in December, emphasized repeatedly that aggressive resource development is key to ensuring the state’s long-term financial stability. However, the state will run out of reserve funds within two years with the deficit spending the governor is proposing and any new projects such as oil fields would take considerably longer to get online.
Among the stalled efforts last session to significantly boost revenue were imposing higher oil industry taxes, along with a sales and/or income tax. Dunleavy did propose and get passed a carbon-offsets bill last session — referred to as the “trees bill” since in essence it allows polluters or other entities to buy carbon credits from the state, which in return agrees to leave forest areas unharvested. But the “billion-dollar a year” income he suggested was possible a year ago from that bill and a companion carbon sequestration still pending appear to be years away and, according to studies so far, in significantly lower and uncertain amounts.
Continuing city controversies
While the politicians at the Capitol are confronting a multitude of financial and social issues, Juneau’s municipal and education leaders will be doing the same, often with a more immediate impact.
A master plan for the redevelopment of Telephone Hill was originally scheduled to be presented to the Assembly last month, but has been delayed while — among other things — an online survey is conducted through Jan. 9 about four proposed options currently circulating. Public comment to date has been largely negative about the mixed commercial and residential development plans for the 2.5-acre downtown site, with many stating they prefer the existing homes and open space be left intact.
A range of other development proposals, especially to address ongoing critical housing shortages, are also likely to be a dominant topic. Within a few blocks of each other downtown, for example, are a proposed 72-unit apartment on Gastineau Avenue that faces significant fire safety concerns and the lot where the former Elks Lodge stood until it was demolished last year, with the property owner hoping to put a year-round food court as well as housing there.
Debate will also continue about a proposed $7 million city-operated composting facility, funded partially by a $2.5 million federal earmark for design and construction, with numerous residents saying they would like to see the funds used for a partnership with an existing private operator near where the city’s proposed site is.
Another issue local leaders expect to take on before summer is living areas for the homeless during warm and cold seasons.
The latter may be the easier of the two, with the city signing an agreement with St. Vincent de Paul to operate a city-owned warehouse in Thane this winter. Initial indications are the city hopes to extend the agreement, but opposition about the suitability of the warehouse continues to be voiced by leaders of Resurrection Lutheran Church, which hosted the facility during the previous two years.
A more significant issue is the Mill Campground, generally open April to October, with Deputy City Manager Robert Barr telling Assembly members during their annual retreat in early December there were significant problems during the past year needing resolving. He declined to provide specifics, but residents living near the campsite reported campers trespassing, and committing other illegal acts such as drug use and vandalism. People living at the campsite also said there were violent incidents, as well as concerns such as frequent visits by bears.
The Juneau School District is poised to make more headlines about another social issue as it awaits legal advice about challenging the state’s new ban on transgender girls participating in high school sports. The district became the first in the state to seek such outside legal advice late last year, with both school board members and city officials stating the new state regulation violates local ordinances and possibly the Alaska Constitution.
A similar number to last year’s record of about 1.65 million cruise ship passengers is expected for this year’s season between April and October, with the key difference being a new five-ship-per-day limit agreed upon between the city and cruise industry.
Because city leaders say they expect that number to also remain consistent in 2025 – although most Assembly members have suggested looking at ways to reduce that total from 2026 onward — a focus during the coming year will be reducing negative impacts residents reported last year. Among those were overcrowding of municipal buses by visitors at the expense of residents needing to commute, tours being turned away when the Mendenhall Glacier area reached its commercial capacity limits well before the season ended, and incidents involving collisions and other harm to whales by sightseeing boats.
Among the hot-button items the Assembly will continue to consider is Huna Totem Corp.’s proposed new cruise ship dock downtown, located a short distance from the main existing docks. Huna Totem says the new dock will distribute the number of passengers on busy days more evenly in a larger area, while opponents argue it will simply result in expanded development and a larger footprint for the same problems.
One of the busiest periods involving visitors — but not those from cruise ships — will be Celebration from June 5-8. The 40-year-old event held every other year, the biggest gathering of Alaska Natives in Southeast Alaska, resumed in 2022 after an interruption due to COVID-19 in 2020, but the estimated 1,200 participants were below the 2,000 attending the 2018 Celebration. Organizers of this year’s event are hoping for a return to fully “normal” attendance.
The big question on many people’s minds: will the annual release of water known as a jökulhlaup from the ice basin above the face of the Mendenhall Glacier be similar to last year’s record release that damaged or destroyed dozens of homes?
Scientists have stated a repeat of that incident, deemed a once-in-500-years event at the time, is indeed more likely in future years due largely to increased melting resulting from climate change. But because weather along with climate is a dominant deciding factor, the best officials say they can hope for is better prediction models and protection of inhabited areas before another major incident occurs.
City and state leaders are taking steps in that direction, with the city and University of Alaska Southeast both approving requests for increased funds for monitoring equipment. The city is also seeking millions in federal funds for riverbank and other protection measures.
Also worth keeping an eye on is an effort to change the name of Suicide Basin to Kʼóox Ḵaadí Basin, initiated by a group of people who monitor and study the ice basin who say the existing name is “unappealing.” The new Tlingit language name translates to “Marten’s Slide Basin,” referring to a small weasel-like mammal that is in the area.
Both of the other Assembly members up for reelection — Deputy Mayor Michelle Bonnet Hale and ‘Wáahlaal Gíidaak Barbara Blake — are also eligible to seek reelection. One thing that almost certainly will not be on the October municipal election ballot is another bond measure to help fund a new City Hall building, with Assembly members recently agreeing to let city administrators seek other options for existing available office space after two failed bond votes during the past two years.
Three Juneau Board of Education seats will also again be open, currently held by Elizabeth Siddon, Amber Frommherz and Will Muldoon (with the latter winning a write-in campaign in 2021).
Both of Juneau’s Democratic state House members — Sara Hannan and Andi Story — are up for reelection for their two-year terms, while Kiehl is not on the ballot after being elected to a four-year term in 2022.
The most notable statewide candidate race will be for the lone U.S. House seat, where Democratic incumbent Mary Peltola is a top national target of Republicans as she looks to be reelected to a second full term. Among the declared Republicans so far are Nick Begich III, who finished third in the 2022 campaign, and Lt. Gov. Nancy Dahlstrom who recently announced her entry into the race.
Among the reasons Peltola prevailed, according to some political analysts and her opponents, is the ranked-choice voting system used by Alaska for the first time in 2022. That meant the top four finishers in an open primary advanced to the general election, where Peltola emerged on top as Begich and former Gov. Sarah Palin divided the opposing vote. A ballot measure seeking to overturn ranked-choice voting is circulating, with proponents hoping to get enough signatures by Feb. 7 to place the question on the ballot.
And, yes, there’s also a presidential election. But since Alaska has voted for the Republican nominee every year since statehood, aside from 1964 when Lyndon Johnson defeated Barry Goldwater, it’s unlikely to be a focal point of the major party campaigns. Unless, as some state pundits have speculated, Dunleavy decides he’s interested in a job with a newly elected Republican administration rather than completing the final two years of his second term.
• Contact Mark Sabbatini at email@example.com or (907) 957-2306.