Many seats were filled at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall for the last scheduled Native Issues Forum of the legislative session Wednesday, as Juneau’s trio of legislators spoke about issues the Legislature is grappling with in the final days before sine die.
House Minority Leader Beth Kerttula, Rep. Cathy Muñoz and Sen. Dennis Egan shared the stage at the forum, each of them speaking on different subject areas.
Muñoz spoke first, providing a general overview of the situation at the Alaska State Capitol and a roundup of the issues being worked on. She also spent some time discussing her work on the House Finance Committee.
“Having the Finance position is very, very important for Southeast (Alaska),” said Muñoz, who is new to the powerful committee this year.
Muñoz, a Republican, chaired the House Finance subcommittee on the University of Alaska’s operating budget. She talked about the University of Alaska Southeast, naming the Center for Mine Training as a program for which she has advocated.
“I worked closely with Jan Trigg and others to support the mining training here in Juneau, and every year, the Juneau delegation has been successful in getting additional funding to keep this program growing so that our local people have opportunities to get the ... high-paying jobs that are here in our region,” Muñoz said, referring to the Coeur Alaska community relations manager.
Muñoz also mentioned UAS’ Native language program and its assistant professor, Lance Twitchell, among aspects of the university that she supports.
“I’m very supportive of (Twitchell’s) work,” said Muñoz. “I want to continue to see those language programs excel and grow.”
When Kerttula took the podium, she talked about education funding issues.
Education is a topic that Kerttula’s Democratic minority caucus has made a focus of its work, introducing largely symbolic legislation and amendments to increase funding levels for schools and early childhood development programs. She criticized Republican Gov. Sean Parnell and Republican legislators for their reticence to increase the Base Student Allocation within the education funding formula.
“We’re going be going through some possibly lean times, and we want to be sure we maintain a strong education system for our future,” Kerttula said.
Egan, whose arrival at the event was delayed by a Senate floor session that started earlier in the morning, focused on transportation. The Democratic senator, who caucuses with the Senate majority, is chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.
Egan referred to his decision together with four other majority senators to form a Senate Coastal Caucus, which received applause from the audience. He said the caucus was formally created when the coastal legislators “became a little frustrated” during this year’s legislative session.
“I’m really concerned about the $4.3 million cut to funding for the Alaska Marine Highway System,” said Egan, referring to $4.26 million pared from Parnell’s operating budget request for the ferry system. “And that’s one of the reasons we formed the caucus.”
Of the AMHS, Egan added, “It’s our transportation system. I’m concerned that our schedules are going to be cut back.”
Egan also encouraged attendees to submit their comments to the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities on the draft AMHS schedule for next fall, winter and spring. Written comments are being accepted through Friday, and a teleconferenced meeting for additional public comments is scheduled for next Tuesday.
The legislators spoke about several areas of bipartisan agreement, including their opposition to a proposed constitutional amendment working its way through the House and Senate that would lift a constitutional prohibition on direct funding for private schools.
“I don’t think it’s right to take dollars away from the public schools to put them toward private institutions,” Kerttula said, to applause. She said that with the House Bush Caucus — of which Kerttula and Muñoz are members — opposed to the proposed amendment, she does not see it passing the Legislature this year.
The Bush Caucus is also against a bill that would increase voter identification requirements, Muñoz said. Egan affirmed that he opposes that proposal as well.
The three members did not stick to topics on which they agree, however.
Muñoz spoke about the oil production tax reform proposal that passed the Senate, with Egan voting against it, and is now being considered by House legislators.
“The perception is that we’re giving up so much, but we have to do something to increase oil production in the state of Alaska,” said Muñoz.
After that, Kerttula went on to tout House Bill 95, a Democratic proposal to increase the BSA and tie it to inflation. While Muñoz has voiced support for increasing the BSA, she expressed reservations after H.B. 95 was introduced about the idea of instituting automatic year-to-year increases to keep up with inflation.
On the whole, though, the legislators sounded a note of unity.
“We want you to know that we may disagree from time to time on issues, (but) that we work together for you, and we actually plan together, we talk out issues and it is our pleasure to be here today,” Kerttula said.
Muñoz remarked, “I agree with Rep. Kerttula that it truly is an honor and a joy to work with my two fellow Juneau legislators, and most importantly, it’s an honor to represent you.”
The Native Issues Forums are sponsored by the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska and catered by Abby’s Kitchen. The events, which provide time for legislators to speak on various issues, are held about once every two weeks during the legislative session.
This year’s legislative session is scheduled to end April 14.
• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 586-1821 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.