Commentary: Shortened legislative session must hit the ground running

By Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak
For The Cordova Times

I am running for reelection to the Senate because there are several issues I have been working on in fisheries, education and the operating budget that need completion.  My experience in the Legislature and Senate leadership has given me a perspective few have.  I work well with other legislators to accomplish the important tasks needed during such difficult times. 

Because of COVID this will be a shortened session, so it is important we hit the ground running, move swiftly through the budget process, and keep legislation to the minimum while protecting legislators and staff from the virus. 

As chairman of the Joint Legislative Council, it is my responsibility to ensure the State Capitol is safe with testing, deep cleaning, and air handling. 

Alaska has been fortunate in our low incidence and response to the pandemic, but it appears as if things can get worse.  K12 and the university have adapted responsibly making wise decisions.  We must concentrate on jobs and bringing back our economy safely.  The Legislature efficiently moved federal funds to the governor’s office.  We must now make sure those monies are distributed quickly while ensuring fraud is prosecuted.

Other than the pandemic, the biggest issues facing the state are the economy, education, the Alaska Marine Highway System, and the budget.  No surprise there. 

We must open our economy as quickly as possible while maintaining public health.  That means assisting local businesses in reopening and recovering.  The federal government has been generous, but the state also has responsibility.  It appears that some businesses may never be able to reopen.  We need to ramp-up our loan programs to assist business and their employees.

In fisheries, we need to insure we are competitive on the world stage.  I will continue working on my bill, SB 130, on Added Value tax credits for the industry.  These would be used so that processors are able to purchase new equipment and product lines to increase the value of both Pollock and cod.  This will impact everyone in the industry, including fishermen and processors. 

In education, we still have work to do on bills I introduced as chairman of Senate Education Committee to ensure students receive substantive college credit while in high school for higher education classes and bring tribal entities more closely into the K12 system.  We must continue to improve our teleconferencing and connectedness, training our teachers to use distance education platforms to ensure all students have access to online education.  We must insist the university ramp-up its teacher education program so that more of our teachers are homegrown, fill desperately needed positions, and put well-trained Alaskans to work.   

The Alaska Marine Highway is crucial to the communities I represent.  We depend on our ferries to connect us with the rest of Alaska.  The governor’s plan to eliminate the AMHS is simply not acceptable.  There may be fewer vessels and a reduced schedule, but the system must be dependable and available year-round.  It is as important to us as highways are to the rest of the state.

A balanced budget is the one thing required of the Legislature by our Constitution.  It will not to be easy due to decreased oil revenues, reduced savings, and budgetary needs like education, the marine highway system, health and social services, and police protection.    This Legislature will have to concentrate on negotiating a budget in as limited a time as possible.  I am urging a 60-day expedited session emphasizing the budget.  We need to solve the budget problem at hand, not push decisions to future legislatures or make generations to come pay for our inability to balance a budget.   

Negotiating a balanced budget will be extremely challenging.  But we can do it even though times are difficult.  We have reduced the budget considerably over the past several years and must continue doing so.   All agencies and departments will be closely scrutinized, and each asked to submit a reduced budget.  Every legislator will be involved in this process through budget sub-committees with firm direction to find reductions.  The Permanent Fund Percent of Market Value (POMV) plan is now providing more revenue to the state than oil taxes.  If we do not draw more than 5 percent, we will see the Permanent Fund continue to flourish providing necessary funds to inflation proof the Fund, provide a Permanent Fund Dividend (PFD) and assist in funding our operating budget well into the future. 

I know the full PFD is the elephant in the room.  Several candidates are promising a $3,000 PFD with no idea how to pay for it and with limited math skills.  That would reduce our revenues by almost $2 billion and would end in overdrawing the Permanent Fund to the detriment of all Alaskans.  Remember we are not receiving the revenues from oil that we used to.  When I was Senate President, 90 percent of our revenues were from oil. Now they are around 30 percent.  That should show you the sorry state our revenues are in.  After reducing our budget as much as we can, I will see that we fund state government and deliver a reasonable PFD.  I know this is not popular and some candidates are trying to buy your vote by promising the impossible.  Promising everything including a full PFD and stable state services is just not realistic.  Those who promise you a $3,000 PFD will have a sad awakening if they are elected.  You cannot beat basic math which wins all the time.  I know you realize that cost-shifting to local governments just increases the tax burden in your community, which you will then be asked to pay for out of another pocket.  I will do my best to keep the administration from cost-shifting the state budget to local communities. 

I believe the time has come for every state agency and department to take a reduction with no exceptions.  I would propose a 3 percent to 5 percent budget reduction across the board.  We have discussed such draconian actions in the past to no avail.  It is now time to implement and impact every budget of every agency in the state.  All items in the budget have their defenders and sound arguments, however, this is one way to reduce the budget by hundreds of millions of dollars.  It is now time.

The problem with any major tax such as income or sales is that the governor has the power to veto any such legislation.  The governor has said he will use his veto pen to achieve that end.  Before the Legislature spends enormous time and effort on devising a plan, we must ensure the governor will support and not veto it.    Should he agree to that, then we need an honest and insightful public discussion on the pros and cons, understanding that any implementation will take a couple of years after passage.  This issue should begin with the governor introducing such a bill or at least agreeing not to veto a legislative bill.

I have spent many years in leadership positions, working across the aisle and with the House of Representatives.   I believe in consensus building, in bringing most members to reasoned conclusions.  All legislators realize after being elected that in a representative democracy it is not enough to have a great idea.  You must be able to work with others, convince them of the wisdom of your ideas, be prepared for your bills to be altered along the way, and get a majority consensus from both bodies and the Administration.  We have achieved cooperation in the past when legislators arrive at a negotiated budget.  It is not easy and demands cooperation and compromises, but that is what legislating is all about. 

I am opposed to the Pebble Mine.  I have been from the beginning when Bristol Bay was in my Senate District.  It no longer is, but many of my constituents are involved in the Bristol Bay salmon industry.  I attended an EPA hearing in Dillingham and heard dozens of local citizens, some in tears, describe the impact of the proposed mine on their families, culture, and communities.  It is so easy for mistakes to occur.  Nobody can restore what is lost.  The president of Anglo American told me if they caused any problems, they would pay for it.   Paying for the loss of these natural salmon runs is not enough and restoration is unlikely.  The company said they would guarantee no destruction in perpetuity.  No corporation has been around that long.  Any leakage from storage facilities or damage to the environment has the potential of destroying the greatest salmon producing streams left in the world.  We cannot take that chance.  As Senator Ted Stevens said it is “the wrong mine in the wrong place.”

This is a crucial election in so many ways.  I encourage you to consider these issues carefully and let me know your concerns.  You can find us on the web at www.garystevensalaska.com

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