The 33rd Alaska Legislature commenced its second regular session in Juneau, signaling a renewed focus on critical issues such as education, energy, and workforce retention. Lawmakers wasted no time delving into key matters, with a notable attempt to override Governor Mike Dunleavy’s veto of $87 million in education funding taking center stage. Despite a failed attempt in the Alaska House, where a joint session vote ended in a 20-20 split, minority members expressed their commitment to pursuing additional joint sessions until the looming Saturday deadline.
Alaska’s public education system finds itself in crisis, grappling with the aftermath of high inflation and six years of stagnant state funding. Simultaneously, the Railbelt region faces an impending energy crisis following Hilcorp’s decision in 2022 not to automatically renew gas contracts with electrical utilities. Worker retention challenges and a continuous outmigration further compound the strain on state services.
Senate President Gary Stevens, emphasizing the bipartisan majority caucus’s priorities, outlined a three-fold focus on increasing public school funding, establishing a new public sector pension plan, and addressing the pressing energy needs of the Railbelt region. Stevens acknowledged the urgency of enhancing funding for public schools, recognizing it as the top priority for the majority caucus. Additionally, he highlighted the importance of a new public sector pension plan and the imperative to address the energy challenges faced by the Railbelt.
Despite the Senate’s pension plan bill encountering obstacles in the Finance Committee last year, Senate leaders express their commitment to resuming work on the legislation. The proposed pension plan also garners support from members of the House minority. In 2023, the Senate took steps to increase the Base Student Allocation, the state’s per-student school funding formula, by $680, amounting to $175 million. However, the bill encountered delays in the House, where the majority favored a substantially smaller funding increase.
House Speaker Cathy Tilton, representing the Republican-led majority caucus, emphasized their primary goal of finding solutions to reduce energy costs statewide. Recognizing the burden on Alaskans, majority members are actively developing policies aimed at curbing power bills. This initiative is particularly crucial for ratepayers in Southcentral and Interior Alaska, who anticipate escalating costs if utilities opt to import natural gas.
As the legislative session unfolds, the complex interplay of education funding, pension reform, and energy solutions will undoubtedly shape the trajectory of Alaska’s policy landscape. Lawmakers grapple with the imperative to address these pressing issues, knowing that their decisions will significantly impact the well-being of Alaskans and the state’s future trajectory.