Despite the dominance of oil tax politics, the legislature did manage to pass some good bills and kill some ugly pieces of legislation. In between, they did “the bad” by not going far enough in funding K-12 education. But first the good.
In honor of the 38th Earth Day, I’ll start by applauding the 27th Legislature for extending the Renewable Energy Grant fund until 2018. Representative Bill Thomas, a primary sponsor noted that “by 2013 the Renewable Energy Grant Fund will displace an estimated six million gallons of diesel fuel each year”. In addition to helping villages use less diesel oil, these 200 plus renewable energy projects have been successfully seeding clean energy alternatives all across the state. Renewing this commitment to the grant fund helps establish and maintain Alaska’s leadership on clean energy. This truly merits a salute on Earth Day.
In this same vein, it should be noted that the Legislature passed HB 144, a bill aimed at protecting public access to Alaska’s fishing streams. An important bill that squeaked through in the final moments of the regular session was SB 23, a generous tax credit bill. What started out as a bill to renew the film production tax credit ended up being the vehicle for last minute compromises on tax breaks for particular small businesses and for liquefied natural gas storage. But most importantly, passage of Senate Bill 23 will continue the successful film production tax credit and therein up the attraction for a multi-billion dollar film industry to come to Alaska. Another good bill that is awaiting the Governor’s signature is SB 74 a bill that will require insurance coverage for autism spectrum disorders. Also Representative Cathy Munoz deserves credit for her bill giving municipalities more flexibility in offering tax incentives for needed housing. This is all good as are many items in the capital and operating budgets.
Not so good is the half-hearted attempt to deal with education funding. The Senate started off with a modest $125 increase to the base student allowance (BSA). The House Democrats also saw the need to provide for budgetary stability and supported an increase to the BSA. But this was not enough to overcome Governor Parnell and the House leadership’s objection to any sustained increase. In the end, by providing some inflation proofing funds for transportation and vocation education and by adjusting the required local effort, school districts ended with a $71.8 million increase for overall K-12 school funding.
Although thankful for some increase, many school districts have acknowledged it will not deter serious cuts to successful programs and staff. Rep. Beth Kerttula said it well in her posted remarks, noting, “So we’ve come a long way forward since the governor laid out his budget, but even with this, schools will still have to make cuts this year. And unless we take action early next year, our students will still have to bear the burden of inflation next year in years to come.”
Why is it, when it comes to oil taxes and savings we act like a rich state with billions in reserve but when it comes to funding education, one of the most important factors for attracting global investment and business in our state, we act like a poor state and continue to under invest education? No doubt, this will come back to bite us.
Now onto “the ugly,”HB 168. This bill would have required any Alaskan, community or municipality wanting to challenge a state issued permit to post a bond equal to potential damages suffered by an industrial operation. In most cases the bond amount would exceed $1 million, effectively preventing almost all Alaskans from filing a lawsuit to challenge what may be a fast-tracked, flawed permit. HB 168 was not aimed at stopping frivolous lawsuits but rather lawsuits that would have merit. It was a “mean-spirited” bill aimed at discriminating against local landowners, community groups, native organizations, commercial and sport fishers and other Alaskans seeking to ensure that state agencies are doing their job. Fortunately, this attack on our constitutional rights died in the Senate.
How absurd is it that we can formally recognize a marmot but not the contribution of our Native culture? In case you didn’t know it, Feb. 2 is now officially Marmot Day. Meanwhile the Legislature failed again to add the second verse to the Alaska Flag song. After 20-some years of trying, adding a simple verse calling “For Alaska’s flag that there be no bars” remains unachievable, yet the mighty marmot got its due recognition straight away. As you struggle to comprehend this absurdity, remember that I started out with several notable good accomplishments of the 27th Legislature.
• Troll is a longtime Alaska resident and resides in Douglas.