Staff pass through a COVID-19 screening checkpoint set up on the ground floor of the Alaska State Capitol on Tuesday. The new session of the Legislature starts Jan. 19, and some lawmakers and their staff have already arrived in Juneau. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

Staff pass through a COVID-19 screening checkpoint set up on the ground floor of the Alaska State Capitol on Tuesday. The new session of the Legislature starts Jan. 19, and some lawmakers and their staff have already arrived in Juneau. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

New Legislature, same issues, says Juneau’s delegation

Alaska’s perennial problems are likely to dominate the session that starts next week, lawmakers say.

The upcoming legislative session is likely to be dogged by the same issues that have frustrated Alaska politics for years, according to members of Juneau’s delegation, who spoke with city leaders Tuesday at their annual meeting.

“The dominant issues will be what they have been,” said Sen. Jesse Kiehl, a Democrat and Juneau’s only senator. “In the governor’s budget there are calls for revenue, but it doesn’t say what.”

The delegation met with the City and Borough of Juneau Assembly to discuss the city’s priorities. Perennial issues such as the Permanent Fund Dividend, the Alaska Marine Highway System and school-bond debt reimbursement were likely to dominate the session, Kiehl said.

The budget proposed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy in December will require the Legislature to come up with $1.2 billion in additional revenue by the 2023 fiscal year, which starts July 1, 2022, or else state services will have to be reduced to cover the cost. If lawmakers choose revenue such as taxes, legislative fiscal analyst Alexei Painter said at a Jan. 8 meeting, it would be best to pass that legislation this year because it will take time to set such a program up.

Rep. Sarah Hannan, D-Juneau, pre-filed a state income tax bill which she said is similar to past bills, but she noted that other municipalities might favor a sales tax, which Juneau already has, over an income tax.

Neither the House nor the Senate had elected new leadership, Kiehl said, which means that committee assignments have not been given. At the beginning of the last session of the Legislature, lawmakers took more than a month to organize leadership, and on Tuesday Hannan said she didn’t think the House would be able to agree on organization by the start of the session on Jan. 19.

Partisanship was high, said Juneau’s other House Representative, Andi Story, also a Democrat, but she hoped having lawmakers together at the Capitol would lead to more civil conversations. Story said she hoped to find common ground with her colleagues through a mutual love of Alaska.

“I believe our citizens want that,” she said.

[New revenue or no service, lawmakers weigh options]

City leaders had their own list of long-running concerns, among them keeping state jobs in Juneau. The pandemic increased the use of teleconferencing, Kiehl said, which was opening up where state workers were able to live. The delegation was working with department commissioners and leaders to discuss flexibility when it came to the placement of state jobs.

Sutton Republican Rep. George Rauscher pre-filed a bill that would move legislative sessions to Anchorage.

“Zoom is the single greatest threat to Juneau losing the capitol,” assembly member Wade Bryson said, speaking via Zoom. “Anything that we can do to limit the power of Zoom.”

Some state workers had even begun working from outside Alaska, Kiehl said, something he said was unacceptable and untenable.

Also part of the governor’s proposed budget is more than $300 million in infrastructure bonds. But those bonds would be used to fund shovel-ready projects throughout the state. Kiehl expressed skepticism that lawmakers would be able to select a comprehensive list of projects that satisfied the needs of Alaska communities. Hannan, whose district includes Haines and Skagway, said she has been in contact with those municipalities to have them draw up a list of projects they’d like to see completed.

But the state has already faltered on its payments for school bonds, Deputy Mayor Loren Jones said, and there is plenty of existing infrastructure that needs funding for repairs. Bonds for new projects while the city has been trying to get state funding for infrastructure repairs “doesn’t make sense to me.”

Jones asked if the state could simply bond money directly to municipalities, which could then decide how best to appropriate the money. Hannan told assembly members that if the state’s lawyers allow them to, that’s what the delegation will try to do.

Legislative Legal Services did not respond to request for comment.

Dunleavy is also proposing an extra draw on the Permanent Fund to pay a supplemental Permanent Fund Dividend for 2020 and a $3,000 PFD for 2021, an influx of cash he says will help stimulate the economy. But that extra draw would come at the cost of future revenue from the fund, Painter told lawmakers, meaning higher taxes or fewer services.

Based on the campaign rhetoric of some of the new members, Hannan said some seemed to believe “we can cut our way to a balanced budget.”

But that kind of budget didn’t meet the needs of Alaskans, she said.

“That means not plowing highways, reducing critical services and transportation infrastructure. I’m not really seeing that that’s universally understood.”

• Contact reporter Peter Segall at psegall@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.

More in News

This 2020 electron microscope image provided by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases - Rocky Mountain Laboratories shows SARS-CoV-2 virus particles which causes COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the U.S., emerging from the surface of cells cultured in a lab. On Monday, Oct. 5, 2020, the top U.S. public health agency said that coronavirus can spread greater distances through the air than 6 feet, particularly in poorly ventilated and enclosed spaces. But agency officials continued to say such spread is uncommon, and current social distancing guidelines still make sense. (NIAID-RML via AP)
COVID at a glance for Friday, Jan. 22

The most recent state and local numbers.

A Coast Guard Station Juneau 45-foot Response Boat-Medium patrols Auke Bay during an exercise in 2018. A response boat similar to the one in the photo was struck by a laser near Ketchikan on Saturday, Jan. 17, prompting an investigation into the crime. (Lt. Brian Dykens / U.S. Coast Guard)
Coast Guard wants information after laser pointed at boat

“Laser strikes jeopardize the safety of our boat crews…”

The valleys of Jim River and Prospect Creek in northern Alaska, where an official thermometer registered Alaska’s all-time low of minus 80 degrees F on Jan. 23, 1971. Photo by Ned Rozell
Alaska’s all-time cold record turns 50

The camp was there to house workers building the trans-Alaska pipeline

This 2020 electron microscope image provided by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases - Rocky Mountain Laboratories shows SARS-CoV-2 virus particles which causes COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the U.S., emerging from the surface of cells cultured in a lab. On Monday, Oct. 5, 2020, the top U.S. public health agency said that coronavirus can spread greater distances through the air than 6 feet, particularly in poorly ventilated and enclosed spaces. But agency officials continued to say such spread is uncommon, and current social distancing guidelines still make sense. (NIAID-RML via AP)
COVID at a glance for Thursday, Jan. 21

The most recent state and local numbers.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy addresses the public during a virtual town hall on Sept. 15, 2020 in Alaska. ( Courtesy Photo / Austin McDaniel, Office of the Governor)
Dunleavy pitches dividend change amid legislative splits

No clear direction has emerged from lawmakers.

Joar Leifseth Ulsom, right, wearing a bib with ExxonMobil lettering on it, congratulates Peter Kaiser on his win in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Nome, Alaska. The world’s most famous sled dog race has lost another major sponsor as the Iditarod prepares for a scaled-back version of this year’s race because of the pandemic, officials said Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021. ExxonMobil confirmed to The Associated Press that the oil giant will drop its sponsorship of the race. (Marc Lester / Anchorage Daily News)
ExxonMobil becomes latest sponsor to sever Iditarod ties

The world’s most famous sled dog race has lost another major sponsor.

Has it always been a police car? (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire)
Police calls for Friday, Jan. 22, 2021

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

This electron microscope image made available and color-enhanced by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Integrated Research Facility in Fort Detrick, Md., shows Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 virus particles, orange, isolated from a patient.	(THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-NIAID/National Institutes of Health)
State reports 24 COVID-19 deaths

Only 1 of the deaths happened recently, according to the state.

Most Read