While a lot about the year-to-come is sure to be a surprise some things, including housing, an impending legislative session and budget-making at all levels of government, among many others are certain to impact Juneau and its residents. (Moritz Knöringer / Unsplash)

While a lot about the year-to-come is sure to be a surprise some things, including housing, an impending legislative session and budget-making at all levels of government, among many others are certain to impact Juneau and its residents. (Moritz Knöringer / Unsplash)

Stories likely to break big in 2023

New housing, federally-funded projects, school leadership changes among items affecting Juneau

There’s no huge elections or iron-clad athletic events on Juneau’s 2023 calendar so far, but the year ahead still features plenty of possibly foundational developments such as a significant amount of new housing to cope with the ongoing crisis, big changes in local school leadership, an effort to scale back abortion rights and a campaign to eliminate ranked choice voting.

There’s also plenty that will be unpredictable, including how existing events such as the war in Ukraine and COVID-19 pandemic evolve in addition to the newly unforeseen. So for now these are the stories of significance for Juneau residents to keep an eye on during the coming year, sorted approximately into quarter-year segments in no particular order of importance:

FIRST QUARTER

Can workforce shortages be resolved?

It seems like the two biggest everyday problems for everyone are shortages of money due to inflation and shortages of people available to earn money filling vacant jobs. Local leaders are starting the year by making the first of what will be many efforts at all levels to assess and seek remedies to the latter issue that’s resulting in a shortage of workers at everything from supermarkets to snowplowing.

The initial signs don’t look great. “The current job market that strongly favors job seekers is unlikely to change any time soon. It’s much more than just a COVID thing, especially in Alaska,” is the assessment of Juneau City Manager Rorie Watt in a report he will present to the Juneau Assembly’s Finance Committee on Wednesday. His highlighted recommendation for policymakers is “consider making it easier for trained and experienced people to work in Alaska (reciprocity of licensing, telework, etc.).” He also recommends stable education/training infrastructure and keeping tabs of vital stats such as demographics to avoid making changes with little impact.

Legislative session starting Jan. 17

It appears there will be some early intrigue carrying over from recent years since the state House is again facing a potentially prolonged battle over what its majority will look like. But in the Senate the agenda is going to look markedly different from recent years as the formerly Republican-led chamber now has a majority of nine Democrats and eight Republicans. So far it seems a less conservative legislative branch has Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy taking a more moderate and pragmatic approach to the beginning of his second term than he did four years ago — including on some of the biggest non-budget items that may come up such as the next item on this list.

Restrictions on abortion rights?

Dunleavy says he’s going to introduce a proposed constitutional amendment to alter the existing privacy clause, although the election of a more moderate Legislature than expected means he may tone down the restrictions sought. So Alaskans may not be voting on enacting Texas-style “bounties,” but perhaps limits after a certain number of weeks or on allowable circumstances will be considered by the Legislature.

Protesters rally near the Alaska State Capitol following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. While abortion rights are currently protected by the Alaska Constitution, the decision by the U.S. high court ushered in a raft of abortion-banning or access-limiting bills, and the legislative session is likely to see similar efforts. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)

Protesters rally near the Alaska State Capitol following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. While abortion rights are currently protected by the Alaska Constitution, the decision by the U.S. high court ushered in a raft of abortion-banning or access-limiting bills, and the legislative session is likely to see similar efforts. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)

Do Ukraine war and high oil prices go on?

Russian President Vladimir Putin is definitely proving he’s not king of the world, but he seems more than willing to steer whatever’s still standing in Ukraine into the same iceberg that’s sinking his own country. While such instability is problematic in a lot of ways globally, it might continue to mean elevated oil prices that benefit Alaska’s bank balance. Prolonging the war another year might not result in a revival of the $120 and up prices seen last spring, but it might keep them high enough Alaska’s lawmakers can again bestow big Permanent Fund dividends and a bountiful budget on constituents without tapping much into the state’s reserves. High prices might also give oil companies some incentive to pursue more drilling activity/production in the state, even if recent interest seems to be running on fumes.

Landfill fee hikes/rule changes starting Feb. 1

This one might significantly alter the local landscape, if the most vocal worriers are correct. Capitol Recycling and Disposal will starting in February be significantly increasing rates and decreasing the hours it accepts non-commercial disposals to limited hours on Saturdays. Local residents reacting to the news on social media are predicting trash bins in town and roadsides outside of settled areas will soon be strewn with refuse.

COVID Comeback?

People may be increasingly and exasperatedly insisting they’re “done with that.” But as many family members can attest after spending too much of the just-completed holiday season in bed, the virus villains don’t seem to have much respect for concepts like personal space. Given China’s latest mass shutdown to control the outbreak there, is there potential a new variant/surge could disrupt the presumed return to a “full” tourism season and other normalcy locally?

SECOND QUARTER

New housing that actually debuts

A group of Juneau residents tour the Riverview Senior Living facility in October, which is currently under construction and slated to open in early to mid-2023, according to the company. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

After anguish about prices and lack of vacancies have accumulated for a couple of years, it seems the coming months will be when significant new housing for those who need it most will see doors open. Among the first may be the Riverview Senior Living facility for up to 99 residents, scheduled to be completed in early to mid 2023. The first 96 units of what the developer hopes will be the 444-unit Ridgeview Subdivision may be complete this year as well, including 24 low-income units. The Glory Hall finally won its long battle to convert its former downtown homeless shelter into low-income housing. Other projects getting city funding recently also are expected to be available in the near future.

New health care facilities that actually debut

Health care in Juneau was in a crisis state during 2022, similar to much of Alaska and the U.S., but there’s hope at least in terms of healing facilities on the horizon. Bartlett Regional Hospital is planning completion of the new Aurora Behavioral Health Center in late April, and the hospital also hopes to begin providing hospice and home care services that were discontinued by another local provider in 2022. Another major facility scheduled to debut, possibly during the winter of this year, is SEARHC’s Vintage Park Campus which will offer a range of behavioral health, primary care, urgent care, pediatrics and optometry services.

Mendenhall Glacier Visitors Center renovation…or seizure by the governor?

Major changes to the buildings and wildlands of Juneau’s most popular tourist attraction have been under consideration for the past several years, but it seems this year is when a solid set of options and evaluations of their worthiness emerge from the U.S. Forest Service. The most recent proposal now contains seven alternatives, with public input accepted during the first quarter of this year and an Environmental Impact Statement issued during the second quarter. But also worth keeping an eye on is a lawsuit Dunleavy filed late in 2022 that essentially seeks to seize the submerged Mendenhall lake and river areas the federal government claims it has authority over. In practical terms, the governor acknowledges this is so people can have motor boat and other access to the waters. The federal options contain some motorized access by tour operators, but none advocate for the kind of access Dunleavy is seeking.

A map showing Alternative 2, the most aggressive of four original options for expanding the Mendenhall Glacier Recreational Area, includes a dock for commercial motor boats that would carry passengers to a new visitor area at the face of the Mendenhall Glacier. That alternative is the “proposed action” by the U.S. Forest Service, but a revised draft Environmental Impact Statement adds three new lower-impact alternatives to three others already being considered. (U.S. Forest Service)

A map showing Alternative 2, the most aggressive of four original options for expanding the Mendenhall Glacier Recreational Area, includes a dock for commercial motor boats that would carry passengers to a new visitor area at the face of the Mendenhall Glacier. That alternative is the “proposed action” by the U.S. Forest Service, but a revised draft Environmental Impact Statement adds three new lower-impact alternatives to three others already being considered. (U.S. Forest Service)

New Juneau School District superintendent, and budget/academic reforms

Juneau School District Superintendent Bridget Weiss is stepping down at the end of June after a final year filled with both acclaim and acrimony. Weiss entered 2022 as Alaska Superintendent of the Year, presiding over a program trying to resume normalcy as pandemic restrictions waned. But in addition to the “normal” local calamities such as the flooding of an elementary school, there were mishaps including a “deeply concerning” financial audit and poor (but still above state average) standardized test scores. Considerable time is expected to be devoted to remedying such issues during the remainder of Weiss’ tenure, but the process and selection of her successor will also speak volumes about the path local school board members are seeking to follow.

Municipal budget

The Juneau Assembly has to pass one by June 15, and there will no doubt be moments of intrigue during the months leading up to that date. And quite possibly after if members decide to ask voters to approve funds for favored items. Local leaders generally won’t have the big federal COVID-19 relief dollars that have made beefing up and balancing recent budgets possible, but they may well be able to spend some of the federal infrastructure/omnibus funds approved by the last Congress. As always, the list of infrastructure, maintenance, parks, harbors, streets and other projects will be far too long to fully cover, and plenty of city agencies will almost certainly ask for more employee and operational funding than they’ll receive. Finally, while revenue-generating ideas such as a seasonal sales tax may again be raised, hiking the property tax mill rate didn’t find much favor among last year among the same Assembly members who will again construct this year’s spending plan.

“Full” tourism season

The cruise industry proclaimed 2022 a return to “normal” with an average ship occupancy rate of 74%, so this year’s buzzword is a “full” tourism season. Officials are predicting 1.4 million cruise ship tourists in Juneau this year, with as many as 1.6 million if ships are truly at full capacity.

What happens with the ferry system?

The Alaska Marine Highway System is again proclaiming big ambitions and improvements, while funding and scheduling for the ferries seem at most to be coasting on the rocky waves of recent times. Dunleavy’s “full funding” proposed in his budget for next year essentially seeks to maintain the status quo — a departure from drastic cuts he sought during his earlier years — but federal infrastructure funding in particular could start to ingest meaningful maintenance and infrastructure upgrades into vessels and ports during the year. Look to both the legislative session the first half of this year and the Congressional budget process during the second half to see what kind of chart policymakers are plotting.

Do state lawmakers cash in on carbon?

Gov. Mike Dunleavy delivers his 2022 State of the State address before a joint session of the Alaska State Legislature. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire File)

Gov. Mike Dunleavy delivers his 2022 State of the State address before a joint session of the Alaska State Legislature. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire File)

Dunleavy’s revenue item in his proposed state budget for next year is a long-term plan for Alaska to monetize carbon credits — largely by leaving forests and other natural areas undeveloped — which he said could eventually result in billion-dollar annual earnings that rival oil. Specifics of the how and how much of carbon credits are likely to get their first serious scrutiny during the legislative session, and since the governor’s 10-year plan calls for a quickly accelerating amount of income starting next year some of the intrigue will be if meaningful action is actually achieved.

THIRD QUARTER

State budget

While many of the above items are part of Alaska’s spending plan for fiscal 2024, the budget itself takes effect July 1. That’s when everyone affected by it will also know Dunleavy has omitted with line-item vetoes (and if legislators want to try to override him), as well as what other factors such as volatile oil prices are sharing spending sensibilities.

Merger of Fred Meyer and Safeway?

A marriage of these supermarkets’ respective parent companies, Kroger and Albertsons, isn’t so far coming across as one of convenience for consumers or regulators. As such, the timing of if/when a merger occurs is far from certain. But if it occurs, Juneau will be among the communities with foremost concerns since, among obvious other factors, customers can’t just drive to the next town for groceries and the primary local competition of IGA is in a decidedly lower corporate financial tier. As of New Year’s the competing conglomerates of Fred Meyer and Safeway were selling lettuce for about $3 a head, while at Foodland IGA the price has been $8 for weeks. Expect plenty of “lettuce” questions from local residents if Fred Meyer gets the OK to run both megamarkets (and/or decides to just keep one open).

Does the second Douglas crossing finally find a foundation?

If anything concrete actually happens during 2023 it will be a landmark achievement for something that’s been under study for the past 40 years. Policy gurus aren’t getting off to a speedy start in 2023 since the first order of businesses is yet another public open house during the spring. But many local and transportation leaders are saying this might finally be the project’s proverbial jumping off point thanks to the much-discussed federal infrastructure funds. While there’s some colorful options being floated in the most recent proposals including an underwater crossing with one entrance near the end of the runways at Juneau International Airport, those pursuing the plan are expecting to pick one or more recommended options from a range of sites spanning from Lemon Creek to Auke Bay.

FOURTH QUARTER

Municipal elections

This cycle appears to be the least rowdy in the city’s three-year cycle since there’s no statewide/national elections shortly afterward or mayor’s seat among the three Juneau Assembly spots open. But that may change in a hurry if local pols/petitioners revive previously considered ballot items such as a new city hall and repealing food sales taxes or attempting new measures.

Federal budget giveth and/or taketh away?

City leaders may be eyeing local harbor and home heating improvements. The local state legislative delegation a share for fisheries and ferry facilities. The congressional delegation, which should still carry some clout despite being in the minority in both chambers, will be reviewing a range of resources from mining to communications support. But come October those hoped-for windfalls may hit a hurricane if the sharply-divided Congress can’t get a budget passed and the federal government suffers another shutdown.

Any follow-up effort on Juneau-based icebreaker?

This would be a big for-sure item to watch this year if the $150 million “authorized” to purchase a private icebreaker and home port it in Juneau for the U.S. Coast Guard survived the final omnibus budget bill passed last month by Congress. But it didn’t. Still, both of Alaska’s U.S. Senators said they’ll be trying to revive it as part of the budget discussions — and the budget bill did request the Coast Guard to return with details about making a certain targeted vessel suitable for service and if alternative ships might be more suitable. So it’s worth watching to see if the ship sustains any forward momentum amidst all the other earmarks afloat.

Ranked choice voting repeal?

The hopes of many despairing about the future of democracy in the U.S. were lifted by the results of Alaska’s first ranked choice elections, prompting many other states and cities to consider the growing participation in such processes. But people primarily on the losing end of Election Day in the Last Frontier are seeking a return to the old ways via a petition they hope will be before voters in time to “fix” the 2024 election. So, like the folks who started trying to recall Dunleavy early in his first term, it remains to be seen if the ranked repeal catches on quickly this year or ultimately fails by the wayside in a year or two.

Who declares for 2024?

Kelly Tshibaka, left, chats with Juneau residents during a local church visit in September as part of her unsuccessful U.S. Senate campaign. Political pundits say she is among those who could emerge this year as a strong challenger in the 2024 Congressional election or as a national media figure based on her Donald Trump-backed performance. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire).

Kelly Tshibaka, left, chats with Juneau residents during a local church visit in September as part of her unsuccessful U.S. Senate campaign. Political pundits say she is among those who could emerge this year as a strong challenger in the 2024 Congressional election or as a national media figure based on her Donald Trump-backed performance. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire).

The only statewide race next year is sure to be a scorcher as Democratic U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola will be facing what’s typically a career-determining campaign for a second full term, likely against any number of the state’s prominent Republicans who want to reclaim the seat their party held for the 50 years prior to her win. She’ll no longer be the cheerful relatively little-known underdog, but an incumbent with a record as a back-bench minority member in a chamber likely spend most of its time trying to make her party look as bad as possible. Among others, Kelly Tshibaka and Nick Begich III are seen as strong contenders, according to pundits and pollsters weighing in after last year’s elections.

• Contact Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com

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