Despite huge challenges, opportunities remain

Posted: Sunday, February 01, 2009

As representative from District 4, in the first days of the 26th Alaska Legislature I have been active, working on legislative priorities for our community and region.

Capital funding priorities in the governor's budget include renovation money for the Johnson Youth Center, infrastructure improvements for the Alaska Marine Exchange headquarters and Department of Transportation funding to improve the Glacier Highway. The federal stimulus money targets "shovel ready" projects that could be underway within 120 days of the receipt of funds. Community leaders and Department of Transportation officials are working hard to identify projects that will meet the federal requirements for funding.

My legislative priority is to strengthen the public employee retirement system for new employees. Changes in retirement in 2006 have reduced benefits for new employees and have not saved employers money. With less to offer, it is a challenge to retain qualified people. In my view, our public employees, teachers, police and firefighters deserve better. HB 30 is cosponsored with Reps. Hawker and Harris and is expected to have an early hearing this session.

Despite tremendous financial challenges, there are opportunities. The legislature has identified the expansion of our transportation and energy infrastructure as a top priority. The alternative energy fund is allowing communities and organizations to bring forward many innovative projects to help lower energy costs. In Southeast, the Kake-Petersburg intertie and the Juneau Airport ground heating system have received approval in the first round, and many more worthwhile projects in our area will be considered in the next funding cycles.

Keeping kids engaged in school and increasing graduation rates are also areas where I will focus my attention. About 57,000 adult Alaskans do not have a high school diploma. Under the direction of Gov. Palin and Commissioner Click Bishop, great strides have been made to expand vocational education. I support strategies such as construction academies, school-work apprenticeships, the Alaska Career Process Technologies program and Alaska Vocational Technical Center that aim to keep young people interested in school and prepared for college and technical careers.

In the next 10 years, the Department of Labor estimates that 40,000 new jobs, not including those needed to build a gas line, will be created. These are jobs that should be filled by Alaskans. Currently we are exporting $1.7 billion in payroll annually to non-resident workers. At British Petroleum on the North Slope, the average employee is 52 years old, and earns approximately $120,000. It is estimated that only six people from Southeast Alaska are employed with BP on the Slope. With a large wave of expected retirees in the near future, this is a great opportunity for our younger people.

Many Alaskans are hopeful that the Kensington Mine's operation plan will be successful. I have had the opportunity to visit the mine site. The Lower Slate Lake is the most sensible option for many reasons. Its small size and location make it impractical for recreation or other use. All of the other tailings options would create a much greater environmental footprint and would be visible from Lynn Canal.

The late Lew Williams, of Ketchikan, often wrote about the importance of our transportation infrastructure to the economic health of our region. Many of the vessels of the Alaska Marine Highway fleet were in use when Alaska became a state, and need to be replaced. Construction of the Lynn Canal highway is also needed to stimulate our economy and shield the region from the sharp economic decline that is happening on a global scale. I have spoken to many about the importance of these projects and I will continue to work hard to insure that funding for needed transportation infrastructure is not harmed.

My committee assignments are: co-chair, Community and Regional Affairs; vice-chair, Education; and member of the Transportation and Fisheries committees. I have also been assigned to the Transportation, Law and Corrections budget subcommittees.

Constituent work is an important part of my responsibility to you. In the legislative office, I am joined by Terry Harvey, Kendra Kloster and Shannon Fields. Please call 465-3744 or stop by Room 409 at the Capitol. I look forward to working with you to improve Juneau and to get our region moving in a positive direction.

• Cathy Munoz is Alaska's District 4 Representative.

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