State Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, addresses the audience during a town hall by the local legislative delegation Thursday evening at the Mendenhall Valley Public Library. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

State Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, addresses the audience during a town hall by the local legislative delegation Thursday evening at the Mendenhall Valley Public Library. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

School district deficit, legislative pay hikes, compost burials among issues at legislative town hall

Veto override on school funding will help district, Juneau’s state lawmakers say.

This story has been corrected to state a veto override requires a three-fourths vote of the Legislature, not two-thirds.

A sliver of hope in helping the Juneau School District with its sudden massive deficit, ongoing concerns about child care and other workforce woes, and a 67% pay raise for state lawmakers earlier this year were among the issues discussed by the three members of Juneau’s legislative delegation during a town hall on Wednesday evening.

The 80-minute meeting at the Mendenhall Valley Public Library, occurring six days before the start of this year’s session, also touched on a wide variety of other familiar issues such as Permanent Fund dividends and state employee benefits — as well as some unfamiliar ones such as human burial composting.

State Sen. Jesse Kiehl, and Reps. Andi Story and Sara Hannan — all Democrats — were in general agreement about broad issues such as boosting education spending and public employee benefits, while also singling out specific matters such as housing and neglected infrastructure.

Kiehl, in an introduction speech to about 20 people gathered in one of the library’s meeting rooms, said one key aspect of this year’s session is the state’s budget situation is relatively stable after going through a period three or four years ago with steep cuts. He said budgets for the past two years — and Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposed budget for next fiscal year — are essentially flat.

Alaska right now seems to be in an OK place with our budget,” he said. “The way we make our living in the world is more stable than it’s been in my lifetime. And that is because of a little bit of diversification in our revenue that we didn’t used to have.”

However, Dunleavy’s proposed budget has a deficit of nearly $1 billion, due largely to the inclusion of “full” Permanent Fund dividends of about $3,400, and his long-term plan would leave the state with no spendable reserve funds within two years. The Legislature last session passed a budget with a small surplus and a PDF of $1,312 in a budget battle that appears likely to be refought this year.

One of the first potential battles between Dunleavy and the Legislature could also be one of the most important for Juneau: an override session for his vetoing half of a one-time $680 per-student increase in the state’s school funding formula.

That would mean an extra $2.8 million for the Juneau School District, which is facing an unexpected $9.5 million deficit for the fiscal year ending June 30 that was revealed during the past week. Restoring the funding to all districts statewide would cost a total of $87.5 million.

A joint session for a veto override must be called within the first five days of the session and would require a three-fourths vote by both chambers. That is likely in the Senate which has a bipartisan 17-member majority that made the increase a top priority, but questionable in the House where the Republican-led majority holds 23 of the 40 seats.

However, Hannan said one factor that may make a difference is a lot of legislators who were newly elected last year are now more familiar with the political landscape entering the second half of the two-year session, and their experience with the issue when crafting last year’s budget may affect their votes.

“There’s a lot of members who invested, in both bodies, a lot of time and energy in education funding, thought we delivered a compromise budget, and the governor vetoed it,” she said.

Recruiting and retaining employees, both public and private, remains a widespread and ongoing issue that was discussed extensively by all three legislators during the town hall, at times in response to questions from audience members about specific professions such as child care. Story noted the combination of inadequate salaries and benefits is causing many of the woes among public employees.

“We were just all three of us at a meeting today with the food bank and talking about how some of our Coast Guard families are coming to the food bank,” she said. “We know some of our state employees are using a food bank, that they’re just really having a tough time with the high cost of food that’s coming in.”

Story said there has been some improvement in some state agencies with critical shortages such as the Alaska Marine Highway System, but among the key bills to watch is one pending in the Senate restoring a defined benefits retirement plan as an alternative to 401k-style benefits currently offered to state employees.

Efforts to improve a lack of child care, seen as one of the contributors to workforce shortages, was raised by another audience member. Hannan noted Dunleavy appointed a child case task force earlier this year that is scheduled to present an initial report in December, which she discussed recently with an official from the state agency responsible for overseeing such policies.

“She says we’re going to see a direct stipend idea of trying to subsidize someone who’s willing to work at a daycare,” she said. “The state will pick up the tab if you go to work at the daycare.”

Other issues discussed by the task force include subsiding child care employee wages and putting child care facilities in public buildings, Hannan said.

An audience question about illegal drugs and other crime in Juneau recently also highlighted the workforce issue in terms of an ongoing staffing shortage at the Juneau Police Department, which as of October had about 25% of its jobs vacant. But Hannan also cited the need for involvement by locals, referring to a recent police standoff and arrest of a man in a house a couple of blocks from the Alaska State Capitol that occurred because of people reporting suspicious activity to JPD.

“It was people calling and saying ‘we are seeing a flow of traffic and people rifling cars that aren’t usually there,’” she said.

Furthermore, Hannan said, one effort where some government officials are falling short is providing treatment programs for addiction.

However, the discussion about the struggles of public employees was followed by one of the toughest audience questions of the evening, from a man asking the delegation if they supported a 67% pay raise for legislators that took effect earlier this year.

“How do you justify that on the backs of the (lower) PFD?” the man asked.

The raises were approved by the Alaska State Officers Compensation Commission in a controversial process that also saw the pay of Dunleavy and other top executive branch officials increased. The Legislature initially rejected the executive branch increases since no legislative branch pay hikes were included, after which Dunleavy replaced most of the commission members who added the legislative pay raise, which lawmakers allowed to go into effect by failing to vote to reject them.

“It was a terrible process,” Kiehl said. “I’m OK with the result. I’ll go on record saying that.”

“Quite frankly it has been far too long since the governor or commissioners got a raise,” he said. “I don’t think they’re the only ones. I think a lot of line state employees have gone too long without reasonable races. But the simple fact is if you look at anybody in the private sector who manages and operates an operation as big as the departments of our state government they were making a whole lot more than our state commissioners were.”

Hannan said the raise for legislators — whose salaries had remained unchanged since 2010, although members outside Juneau get per diem for living expenses — is necessary if people want a wider range of residents representing them.

“I’m an old retired person,” she said. “That’s why I could afford to do the job. And if we want a more diverse Legislature of working people, young families, it’s got to pay the bills. So it has to be adequate to be able to do the job because it’s what you do. It’s not really 120 days a year — it’s a 365-days-a-year job.”

As for the salaries of other state employees, Hannan said she’s hopeful a salary study scheduled to begin soon will address shortfalls.

“It’s going to take a year at least,” she said. “And I will be shocked if it doesn’t come back and say we’re behind the private sector. Our prosecutors are behind the private sector, our social workers are behind — we could go on down the list.”

Hannan said that while many of the issues she hears about are familiar, there’s also an ongoing collection of new ones likely to get attention once the Legislature gavels in.

“This week’s new topic to us: compost burials in Alaska,” she said. “OK, it’s very complex. It turns out only a few states do it. And composting has been a dialogue in Juneau, but it’s not the exact same thing. I’m not going to start down that road today, but you know it’s one of those ‘Well, that’s in an interesting concept. OK, we’ll be looking at it’ because it turns out states regulate how you can bury bodies.”

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

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