Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins wants to take his successful Alaska Native languages bill from last session one step further.
The Democratic Sitka legislator introduced a bill in 2014 that identified 20 Native languages as official languages of the state. (English was already an official language.) It passed through the legislature with some difficulty but was signed into law by former Gov. Sean Parnell during an emotional ceremony at the Alaska Federation of Natives Annual Convention in October.
That legislation “was designed to right a symbolic wrong (and to prove) that Native languages are just as ‘Alaskan’ as English is,” Kreiss-Tomkins said. “We need substantive action in addition to just bringing attention to the issue.”
Once session starts next week, Kreiss-Tomkins plans to file legislation that would create Native language immersion schools across the state.
In immersion schools, the school day is conducted entirely in a language besides English — in this case, one of those 20 Alaska Native languages. This approach “is the only way to reverse the tide of language loss and effectively create new fluent speakers (of Native languages), a new generation of new fluent speakers,” Kreiss-Tomkins said in a Tuesday interview.
Currently, there are two examples of Native language immersion elementary schools: one is located in Bethel and run in Yup’ik, the other is in Kotzebue and run in Inupiaq. There are Native language programs integrated into Alaska’s public school districts, including Juneau’s, but these schools operate entirely in their chosen languages.
“We want to grow that work,” Kreiss-Tomkins said of the existing immersion schools. “There are a lot of difficulties in replicating that kind nof success. Bethel has been able to do it because they just have determination.”
Central Yup’ik is the most commonly used Alaska Native Language, with thousands of people still speaking the language, he said. In the case of Tlingit, for example, the population is large, but the number of fluent speakers is very small.
“It’s difficult for Elders to get into the classroom as certified teachers,” Kreiss-Tomkins said.
Facilitating statewide immersion programs would grow Alaska’s Native language-speaking population, he said. Kreiss-Tomkins’ office has been speaking with Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott and the Department of Education and Early Development to develop the legislation.
“We’re really excited about continuing work on Native languages and removing obstacles for parents in the schools (to create immersion programs),” Kreiss-Tomkins said.
He plans to introduce several other bills, including one that would encourage the state government to go paperless and another, co-sponsored by Rep.-elect Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan, that aims to create public protections and a public process to determine the Department of Transportation’s ability to spray pesiticides on rights of way. Right now, Kreiss-Tomkins said, the department applies pesticides along roads in populated areas and near streams where people practice subsistence fishing. The lawmaker said the DOT practice has been controversial in Haines and Petersburg and on Prince of Wales Island, where it affects many, from those working in the fishing and travel industries, to people who pick berries along the side of the road.
In difficult financial times, he said he hopes Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate can work together.
“I’m hoping there’s going to be an air of collaboration and cooperation,” Kreiss-Tomkins said. “We’re in a tight fix right now, and a lot of questions are being forced onto the table by the financial trajectory our state is on.”
Rep.-elect Dan Ortiz, I-District 36
Ortiz, a brand-new lawmaker who took over former Wrangell representative Peggy Wilson’s district, said his first priority is to build personal relationships with his fellow lawmakers so they can all begin tough budgeting work.
“My initial priority is to get out and introduce myself to both majority and minority members and start to build the relationships so I can hopefully contribute to a cooperative session where we can deal with some really tough issues,” Ortiz said by phone from the capitol building Tuesday.
Ortiz echoed Kreiss-Tomkins’ wish for non-partisanship.
“(Fixing the state’s budget deficit is) going to have to be done from a minority/majority, Republican/Democrat (mindset),” he said. It will take “one of non-partisanship and one of trying to contribute to solutions to problems.”
Identifying as a non-partisan Independent, Ortiz sees himself as especially poised to work with both sides. He’s a member of the Democrat-led House minority.
“When I ran for office, my message was that while partisanship has been the way that we do business, it hasn’t always resulted in the best interest of the state of the whole,” Ortiz said. “I think difficult times sometimes call for new solutions.”
Ortiz was put on the House Transportation and House Fisheries committees, which he said is a good fit for the district he’s representing. He’s from Ketchikan, where he has worked as a social studies and government teacher and a debate coach. He said he will look out for the Alaska Marine Highway System from his seat on the Transportation Committee.
Besides co-sponsoring Kreiss-Tomkins’ pesticides legislation, he’s also one of the sponsors of the House minority’s pre-kindergarten bill, which would provide the framework for a statewide pre-elementary program. He said he is also working on some legislation of his own.
Sen. Bert Stedman, R-District R
Sitka legislator Stedman said he is almost completely focused on the state’s suffering budget, which is facing an estimated $3.5 billion deficit in fiscal year 2016. Without cuts or an unexpected bump in oil revenue, that deficit will be made good with money from state savings accounts.
“Nobody living today or even yesterday (has) seen the state this far underwater,” he said. “We can close down entire departments and never balance the budget.”
He said he hopes the rest of the Legislature will join him in aggressively tackling the budget. He expects this year’s actions will be easier than the next year of cuts. He said he thinks it will take three to four years for the state’s financial state to turn around, even if lawmakers act aggressively.
“This is not the time to be bickering on partisan issues ... or megaprojects that need to be funded,” Stedman said. “They can be pushed forward a few years.”
If lawmakers aren’t serious about the budget now, they could “create a bigger problem for someone else to fix” later, he said.
Stedman said he hopes districts across the state take comparable budget cuts — no one community should have to shoulder the burden more than others.
“I want to see a fair distribution of pain around the state,” he said.
He said he expects state programs will need to be downsized and staff will have to be laid off, and he’s telling his constituents not to expect any capital projects that aren’t already in the governor’s skeletal budget. Juneau and Anchorage will probably feel the strain more acutely than other cities because of their large populations of state workers, Stedman said.
He said Alaskans can no longer rely on oil to pay their way, as production will never be as high as it once was and “SB21 is not going to fill the pipeline back up.”
“All hands need to be on deck to work with the governor for the best interest of the state to work on this operating budget,” Stedman said.
• Contact reporter Katie Moritz at 523-2294 or at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.