Rep. Sara Hannan (right) offers an overview of this year’s legislative session to date as Rep. Andi Story and Sen. Jesse Kiehl listen during a town hall by Juneau’s delegation on Thursday evening at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Rep. Sara Hannan (right) offers an overview of this year’s legislative session to date as Rep. Andi Story and Sen. Jesse Kiehl listen during a town hall by Juneau’s delegation on Thursday evening at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Multitude of education issues, budget, PFD among top areas of focus at legislative town hall

Juneau’s three Democratic lawmakers reassert support of more school funding, ensuring LGBTQ+ rights.

The multi-tiered debates about education funding, instruction and social policies managed to get spelled out in full during a 70-minute town hall hosted Thursday evening by Juneau’s legislative delegation that also explored the details of budget, Permanent Fund Dividend, state employee pensions, energy and other issues prominent this session at the Alaska State Capitol.

The three members of Juneau’s delegation, all Democrats, are generally aligned on goals such as significantly increasing per-student state funding and opposing bills that would restrict the rights of LGBTQ+ students. But while testimony from Juneau residents at the Capitol on such proposals has generally matched the sentiment of the delegation, some constituents attending the town hall at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé strongly challenged the lawmakers’ positions on some pending bills.

While the support for more education funding is appreciated, the pending status of bills such as requiring schools to notify parents about children expressing preferences for gender/name changes and prohibiting transgender athletes from school sports teams is a concern, said Kasey Mow, a special education teacher for the Juneau School District. She said she favors both bills (HB 105 and HB 183), as well as a bill making physicians liable for gender transition procedures performed on minors (HB 338).

“I feel that right now in the education system we are being told as educators ‘Don’t partner with the parent, just listen to the kid,’” she said. “And I really feel like it’s putting a dagger in-between supporting the parent or child. We’re not just supporting them academically, we’re trying to support the whole child. And when we’re not giving that opportunity to be open with the parent and have the parent have part of that say I really feel we’re doing this harm to the student.”

All three members of the delegation — Sen. Jesse Kiehl, and Reps. Sara Hannan and Andi Story — stood by their opposition to the trio of bills.

“On all these bills that come before us we always hear from parents, and we had some parents come to me — particularly parents of kids who are trans — come and say ‘What about my child’s rights? What about my rights?” said Story, a member of the House Education Committee.

Another hot-button education issue that has arisen during the past week is homeschooling and correspondence schools, following a judge’s ruling last week that state funding for such programs violates the state constitution’s ban on such money for religious and private schools. Leonard Robertson, describing himself as a member of Juneau’s homeschooling community, told the delegation that support for policies that allow funding for the programs is essential.

“There’s a lot of myth, there’s a lot of exaggeration in numbers and how families might be using these funds,” he said, adding “I would ask that when you’re listening to your colleagues use these exaggerations that you expressed to them that this is not the reality on the ground that we’re seeing in Juneau, that we do have accountability, we do have to check in with our peer teacher and we do have to make sure that these funds are for the right kinds of (instruction).”

Kiehl, noting he has homeschooled his kids at times, said he supports the concept in general. But, echoing many legislators during the past week, he said some guardrails are needed to ensure what the state funds complies with constitutional requirements.

Residents listen to Juneau’s three legislators discuss the major issues happening at the Capitol this year during a town hall on Thursday evening at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Residents listen to Juneau’s three legislators discuss the major issues happening at the Capitol this year during a town hall on Thursday evening at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

The delegation offered updates about plenty of other issues, beginning with an overview of the session to date by Rep. Sara Hannan. As a member of the House Finance Committee she offered details about the operating budget the House passed last week, describing it as mostly a status quo spending proposal except for notable increases for the departments of public safety and corrections.

“There’s sort of a backlog in our correction system from COVID shut down, lack of processing of cases,” she said. “So that resulted in more people staying in custody, so less people are out on probation and parole. And so our prisons have a higher demand and which is a kind of a sad state of affairs, where that’s our biggest growing agencies percentagewise.”

Among key the budget items for Southeast Alaska, the Alaska Marine Highway System appears it will get sufficient funding, but lack of employees remains an ongoing issue, Hannan said.

“We’ve got it funded at a way that we could put seven ferries into rotation, but we don’t have enough certified (employees) and there’s a whole bunch of different specific marine certifications to run a ferry,” she said. “And so that remains the struggle — to get those other ships out there and servicing we need more people working in the Marine Highway System.”

Juneau’s three legislators talk to attendees following a town hall on Thursday evening at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Juneau’s three legislators talk to attendees following a town hall on Thursday evening at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

The operating budget the House handed off to the Senate at the end of last week contains a Permanent Fund dividend of nearly $2,300. But Kiehl — a member of the Senate Finance Committee — told attendees at the town hall not to start counting that money yet.

“If we were to pay a PFD of that size, and keep to the capital budget agreement that we’ve made between the House and the Senate, the budget would be hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars in deficit,” he said. “And I think that is extremely unlikely to happen this year.”

The Senate, much like last year, is proposing a PFD where 25% of available earnings from the Permanent Fund go to dividends and 75% to state spending, which would result in an expected PFD of something more than $1,350. In addition to whatever PFD amount is in the final budget, eligible recipients will also get a bonus “energy dividend” — likely in the range of $222 — based on an agreement from last year to allocate it if oil prices were higher than predicted at the time.

Kiehl, discussing the capital budget that the Senate handed off to the House late last week, said notable Southeast projects include a new Alaska State Troopers patrol vessel for the area that Gov. Mike Dunleavy included in his original proposal. Other projects that were priorities of the delegation include $2 million for road and infrastructure work at the Pederson Hill housing project, $3 million for upgrades at Lemon Creek Correction Center in addition to the $9 million in last year’s budget, plus a “pool” of $10 million for port electrification with Juneau expected to be one of the primary ports sharing the funds.

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

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