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Juneau reps. talk energy, education at chamber lunch

Posted: March 23, 2012 - 12:07am
House Minority Leader Rep. Beth Kertulla, left, and Rep. Cathy Muñoz speak to the Juneau Chamber of Commerce during their luncheon at the Hangar on the Wharf's ballroom on Thursday.  Michael Penn/Juneau Empire
Michael Penn/Juneau Empire
House Minority Leader Rep. Beth Kertulla, left, and Rep. Cathy Muñoz speak to the Juneau Chamber of Commerce during their luncheon at the Hangar on the Wharf's ballroom on Thursday.

Reps. Cathy Muñoz and Beth Kerttula spoke and answered questions at the Juneau Chamber of Commerce lunch meeting Thursday. Muñoz spoke about the issues facing Southeast Alaska and Kerttula related these issues statewide.

In the final 25 days of the session, legislators are busy, Muñoz said. The House has already passed the operating budget.

Muñoz said she thinks about whether Alaska’s Legislature makes laws that help or hinder business.

“The issues that have broad support are really about creating economic opportunity,” Muñoz said.

Southeast Alaska faces several challenges in the near future, she said. Communities work with current redistricting, but with an eye toward future growth.

“We must change the population trends within the next 10 years where we will be gaining population,” Muñoz said.

Muñoz said Southeast Alaska competes for attention and funds with Southcentral energy mega-projects like the proposed Susitna Dam. Southeast Alaskans must make their voices heard, to legislators and to the Alaska Energy Authority and its ongoing work on the Southeast Alaska Integrated Resource Plan, she said.

Energy development is key to other development, Muñoz said. The Legislature recently added a five-year extension to funding alternative energy projects in rural and urban Alaska. The Alternative Energy Fund is scheduled to receive $50 million each year during its extension, Muñoz said.

Mine work in Canada’s Yukon Territory is booming, Muñoz said.

“Annually there is over $300 million in exploration activity,” Muñoz said.

Alaska stands to benefit from that economic activity through its deep-water port in Skagway.

“It is very significant,” Muñoz said. Skagway’s ore terminal can take advantage of $60 million in bonds to improvements thanks to legislation passed last year, Muñoz said.

Niblack and Bokan Mountain mining projects have strong prospects, Muñoz said. Locals near the Niblack Mine on Prince of Wales Island have embraced “this new economic engine in southern Southeast,” Muñoz said.

And to ensure the skilled workers the mining industry needs are in Southeast Alaska, Muñoz said the University of Alaska and mining operators are funding mine education from middle school through advanced mine training.

“We have a high-tech mining simulation right here in the capital city,” Muñoz said. “We are the only school in the United States that has this technology.”

Muñoz talked about the Legislature’s one-time funding increase for education. The funds go to mitigate energy and health care costs, she said.

The Legislature also funded $35 million for the State Library and Museum project, Muñoz said.

Muñoz commended Department of Administration Commissioner Becky Hultberg’s role in finding new work space for the state Department of Labor & Workforce Development employees. The current Labor building, dubbed the “Plywood Palace” is blamed by some occupants for a series of ailments they suffer.

“Our ultimate goal is to build a new building or build a new building in combination with existing state infrastructure,” Muñoz said.

Kerttula agreed, calling the issue surrounding the Department of Labor building “a nightmare.”

Statewide, Muñoz said, Alaskans face a big challenge in the decline of oil production. She said the progressivity features of the Alaska's Clear and Equitable Share oil and gas production tax are broken and exploration credits are too high. At the current price of about $115 per barrel of oil, the state’s share is $9.93 billion, while industry receives $4.99 billion, she said. This difference grows as per-barrel oil prices rise.

Kerttula said she agreed that “on the top side of the tax we’ve got to do some work on the progressivity.”

“On the low side, something the Senate has done, has been to put in a floor,” Kerttula said. The floor is meant to avoid dropping off the bottom with zero tax income to the state should oil prices drop, she said. “Then we can get on to the business of how do we encourage, how do we do the right kind of incentives, what really works. That is a tougher issue.”

Energy is a concern across the state, Kerttula said. The representative said she recently returned from Fairbanks where the temperature was minus-34 Fahrenheit and heating costs have doubled in the last year.

“People are tremendously concerned,” Kerttula said.

Juneau’s delegation is working with the Juneau School District on funding issues, and on the loss of more than 60 employees “if the picture doesn’t change,” Kerttula said.

“It will change,” she said, “it is how will it change. Can we get some money into the base so it will carry forward along with the one-time funding?” Juneau is doing better with it graduation rates and “we don’t want to fall back,” Kerttula said.

• Contact reporter Russell Stigall at 523-2276 or at russell.stigall@juneauempire.com.

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