Commentary: Legislators show that bipartisan cooperation is still possible

I’ve reported on the Legislature for years and I must say that the 2022 session that concluded last week was pleasantly without the disruptions that accompanied the end of sessions in recent years.

Things went relatively smoothly, although there were moments. Overall, our legislators were pretty productive, I think.

Here’s some examples:

The Legislature is at its best when it solves problems quickly, and this year a bill raising the threshold for residential power cost support in rural villages – in reality returning it to what it was a few years ago – moved through the Senate and House at lightning speed, at least as these things usually go.

Senate Bill 243 was introduced April 19 and passed the Senate 18-1 on May 3. It went to the House where final passage, by 38-2, occurred May 16.

But sometimes solving problems, even small nettlesome ones, takes a lot more time. An example is the so-called “ink” bill, House Bill 163. This removes an archaic requirement that auto registration transfer and certain other documents have signatures handwritten in ink, which is obsolete in a world of electronic document transfers.

This requirement has been a real nuisance to auto dealers, banks and consumers. The change to allow electronic signatures passed the House 40 to 0 last year with wide bipartisan support. However, it then sat in a Senate committee for a year, for no apparent reason, until finally passing the Senate on May 18, the last day of the 2022 session.

Another success was House Bill 227, by Rep. Calvin Schrage, of Anchorage, who not affiliated with any political party. HB 227 solved problems with a 2017 state law that provides an innovative financing mechanism for commercial building energy conservation improvements. The program, known as Property Assessed Clean Energy, or PACE, allows private financing for energy improvements to be paid as a part of building owners’ municipal property tax payments, much like sewer and water assessments are paid in service areas. 

Unfortunately, a bill that would have assisted residential homeowners with energy conservation improvements failed to advance. House Bill 170 and Senate Bill 123 were modeled on financing tools developed in other states that have been very successful. The bills reached an advanced stage of passage in both the House and Senate but failed to make it over the finish line.

Important health care legislation passed. House Bill 265 allows for an expansion of telehealth services, even by out-of-state physicians in certain cases. House Bill 172, a bill sponsored by the governor that allows for establishment of short-term mental health crisis stabilization centers, also passed. Currently, the choice for care in mental disturbances are hospital emergency rooms or a jail cell.

It was an amazing year for education. One common-sense bill that passed was SB 20, allowing teaching licenses from other states to be recognized in Alaska. This is really important for military spouses who in Alaska on rotations and who are qualified teachers who want to work. It’s important for schools districts who need all the teachers they can get.

Another bill, Senate Bill 34, allows for an experimental program with tribally-operated schools, which could lead to more culturally-responsive, and effective, education in regions with large numbers of indigenous students. It passed, too.

But the most far-reaching improvements, I believe, will come through passage of the “Alaska Reads” act. This was in House Bill 114 in its final form. The goal is to move Alaska out of last place among the states in fourth grade reading.

This bill became highly controversial in the House and in fact narrowly passed that body. There are fierce arguments over parts of the bill and we should expect amendments will be pursued next year, as is common when major legislation passes.

However, the core principles of the bill are what are really important. It establishes statewide pre-kindergarten programs funded by the state. Only four other states do this. School districts will be able to include pre-K children in their student “counts” for state funding.

At the same time, the state education department will set minimum standards for pre-K to ensure quality. This is the “accountability” part of the bill and it seems reasonable that if state money is doled out there should be some assured deliverables.

Still, some legislators, and others, question the bill, including value of pre-K. They argue young children are better helped just in play. There’s some validity to this, experts say. However, experience in other states shows that when pre-K teachers are certified and their programs are “evidence-based,” meaning they are shown to be effective elsewhere, the educational benefits stay with young children as they move into higher grades. Certified teachers and proven programs are part pf the Alaska pre-K expansion.

To aid reading instruction in grades one through three, and beyond, the state education department will provide help by reading specialists including some trained in indigenous languages, to help school districts. Students who need extra help will get it.

Among the most contentious parts of the bill was a “hard retention” in versions of the bill from previous years where third grade students not testing to grade in reading would be held back. This was removed in later versions, including the one that passed. Despite this, the onus of the retention feature seemed to follow the bill, which kept many progressives in education circles suspicious of it right to the end.

Another point of contention was that early versions of the bill were not well suited to indigenous students in rural schools. Changes were made to address this although some rural legislators feel they do not go far enough.

An interesting thing to me about the reading bill and many other bills that passed this year is that they had bipartisan support. The reading bill, for example, was partly sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, the Senate Minority Leader, with elements of it sponsored by Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Wasilla, the Majority Leader of the Republican-led Senate.

The bill passed the Senate unanimously, with senate Democrats in support. In the House, Rep. Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, the Majority Leader in the coalition-led House, sponsored the House version of the bill. 

Bipartisan support showed up in a lot of other legislation that passed. The telehealth bill was steered through to passage by Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, D-Anchorage, and Sen. David Wilson, R-Wasilla. Another bill, which unfortunately didn’t make it over the finish line, was a measure expanding career and vocational apprenticeship programs in high schools. This was HB 132, a House Labor and Commerce Committee bill (which is led by Reps. Zack Fields and Ivy Spohnholz, both Democrats) but including language from HB108, a similar bill by Rep. Ken McCarty, R-Eagle River.

A lot has been said how polarized our political system has become, but these bills show that, in Alaska, bipartisanship is still possible.

Tim Bradner is publisher of the Alaska Legislative Digest and the Alaska Economic Report