Rep. Sara Hannan (left) and Rep. Andi Story, both Juneau Democrats, talk during a break in floor debate Sunday, May 12, at the Alaska State Capitol. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Rep. Sara Hannan (left) and Rep. Andi Story, both Juneau Democrats, talk during a break in floor debate Sunday, May 12, at the Alaska State Capitol. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Juneau’s legislative delegation reflects on lots of small items with big impacts passed during session

Public radio for remote communities, merit scholarships, fishing loans among lower-profile successes

In one of the hundreds (or thousands, if you count votes) of official actions by Juneau’s legislative delegation not making big headlines during the past four months, Rep. Sara Hannan yet again got some funding for public radio stations in rural communities added to the budget, even though Gov. Mike Dunleavy has vetoed such funding every year he’s been in office.

But given events during the past year such as a landslide in Wrangell that killed six people and cut a portion of the community off from road access, and Dunleavy’s highlighting of the response to such incidents in his State of the State address at the beginning of the session, Hannan focused on that in her efforts to prevent another veto when the governor signs the budget next month.

“We’ve spent a lot of time working with his disaster folks, saying ‘Don’t forget, there are these pretty critical messaging things that you use to make sure that people who are cut off from any other method of communication, you can get your message out,’” she said in an interview Monday.

The extra $1.2 million for rural public broadcasting, a drop in the $12 billion state budget, was among the achievements highlighted by Juneau delegation members — beyond bills they sponsored that passed — reflecting on work done during official committee and floor proceedings, as well as the discussions and negotiations that occurred behind closed doors during the legislative session that ended early Thursday morning.

State Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, looks up a legal reference with Sen. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage, during a break in floor debate Tuesday, May 14, at the Alaska State Capitol. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

State Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, looks up a legal reference with Sen. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage, during a break in floor debate Tuesday, May 14, at the Alaska State Capitol. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

“We did a huge amount of work in the ‘boring, but important’ category,” Sen. Jesse Kiehl said on Thursday. “Stuff that is going to make state government more effective or efficient.”

Some of those items included resolving problems with the state’s payroll system, cost controls for the state corrections system and funds for direct service providers who provide in-home care for seniors.

“Most people don’t notice it, but it makes a huge difference,” he said. “And it saves us money in the long run, which makes things more efficient.”

Rep. Andi Story cited as a highlight a bill she’s been working on for the past five years to increase the amount that can be awarded through state’s merit-based scholarship program. The bill, sponsored this session by the House Education Committee she’s a member of, raises the maximum amount of an Alaska Performance Scholarship to $7,000 a year instead of $4,755 and expands the eligibility qualifications. It passed the House unanimously and a modified “omnibus” version adding a multitude of provisions such as vocational education tax credits unanimously passed the Senate.

“What happened with that bill was that last year when I was presenting it I talked to the committee and I got them to make it a House Education (Committee) bill because I knew it had a better chance of passing,” she said.

Story also worked with members of the Republican-led House majority on another major goal she has pursued in recent years, getting an amendment allocating $9.7 million for reading improvement programs in public schools added to the budget. But in something of a twist it was the bipartisan Senate majority — consisting of nine Democrats and eight Republicans — that trimmed the amount to $5.2 million, which remained in the final negotiated budget between the two chambers.

“The lesser amount just got chosen because there’s other things they had to pick between,” she said. “But I was really pleased to see it come through.”

Among the other budget additions Hannan successfully introduced was increasing municipal aid to 140 small communities to $30 million instead of $20 million, which she said ensures towns such as Gustavus that don’t have revenue from property and other local taxes can provide essential services.

“It would have been a substantial loss to many communities that need assistance in the bulk of their operational funds,” she said.

Hannan also carried a budget amendment adding $3.7 million in one-time funding for victims’ services and the state’s Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, covering a shortfall projected by those programs due to a decline in federal funding in recent years. Dunleavy’s proposed budget did not include funding to cover the gap and an attempt by another legislator to restore the funding earlier during the committee process failed.

Kiehl said a key item he worked with the Dunleavy administration on was adding to a bill provisions establishing a “green bank” to finance renewable energy projects via the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation, as well as help for commercial fishermen to refinance boat and permit loans.

“The green bank is to help finance renewable energy, both at the utility scale and at the household scale,” Kiehl said. “So anything from solar for all, to new wind farms, to new hydro. And that was something that the governor introduced late in the session — neither body got that (bill) across. And so we worked together with the administration to put that into a bill so that it could get over the finish line.”

Kiehl said he carried those provisions due to work he was already doing with the administration on the commercial fishing loans. He said the interest rates for the existing program are “just too high to be useful to fishing businesses in crisis.”

“So we lowered the interest rate to the lowest rate that it was back to a few years ago when the feds were holding down interest rates, which happens to be half its current rate,” he said, adding the rate for the next three years will be 5.25% instead of 10.5%.

Energy emerged as one of the major issues of the legislative session due to looming shortfalls of Cook Inlet gas, plus other issues related to cost and supply. While lawmakers didn’t pass one of Dunleavy’s biggest goals — reducing royalty payments on Cook Inlet production — Kiehl said he believes the governor will support the omnibus bills that did pass with a range of other provisions such as carbon capture storage, geothermal energy and tax breaks for new energy transmission facilities.

“In conversations with the governor’s office the green bank was among his priorities,” Kiehl said. “He wanted an all-of-the-above strategy on energy. This was the thing for renewables. So I’m very happy.”

There were disappointments as well for all of the delegation members. Story said efforts to revive a pension system for public employees — which was replaced in 2006 by a 401(k)-style plan — was among the most frequent things constituents inquired about, but legislation stalled in both chambers despite some last-minute attempts at its passage. She said more hard information needs to be provided sooner next session about the long-term cost benefits of the bill if a similar majority exists next year.

Kiehl also cited the failure of pension legislation as his biggest disappointment of the session, noting one of the reasons the state has a workforce shortage crisis is because of an inability to lure and retain workers long-term due to insufficient benefits.

Hannan said a last-minute rush that resulted in some bills that passed the House failing to make it across the finish line by adjournment, such as changing the state’s $50-per-ounce marijuana tax to a 7% sales tax, was among her frustrations.

She said she also wished she’d followed through on a bill making members of the Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation’s Board of Trustees subject to legislative confirmation after being named by the governor, but held back after being told it would violate the Alaska Constitution. The board has recently encountered allegations of one or more members improperly trying to influence investments made by fund staff.

“I certainly wish even short of introducing a constitutional amendment that I had pushed for similar hearings or efforts,” she said, adding “even if we weren’t going to achieve confirmation, if we’ve had some hearings about issues over there that’d help get a handle on it.”

• Contact Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com or (907) 957-2306.

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