Some progress, but work remains

Posted: Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Now that the Legislature has adjourned, I'd like to share what I believe to be some significant highlights and low points of the 2004 session. As chairman of the House State Affairs Committee, vice-chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, legislative liaison to the stranded gas negotiations, a member of the Legislative Council, and in my role as an individual majority legislator from Juneau, this was a very busy session for me and my staff.

Helping Juneau strengthen its position as Alaska's Capital City was, and remains, my top priority. Toward that end, I voted to tighten up the statewide initiative process to ensure that initiatives have broad statewide support. This is important for Juneau, and has long been a priority of the Alaska Committee.

I worked hard on legislation that addressed the health, safety, welfare, and education of all Alaskans, and especially measures that benefited teens, the dying, and diversification of the economy.

First, the good news for Alaska students is that the Legislature took bold steps to forestall massive school budget cuts that would have increased class size, eliminated programs and caused layoffs of valuable teachers. Here's what we did:

• The Legislature increased education funding by passing an $82 million appropriation bill. Juneau's share of this new money is $3,136,000. We also made a permanent increase to the base student allocation in the state's education funding formula, increasing what the state pays to school districts from $4,169 to $4,576 per student.

• When the House worked on the state's operating budget, I successfully inserted an amendment that appropriated $206,574 to aid the state's six smallest charter schools including the Juneau Community Charter School. Later, the House and Senate Budget Conference Committee cut that to $106,000 so that the Juneau's charter school will receive $18,783. The charter school will also benefit from the increase to the foundation formula.

Fourteen of my bills and resolutions passed the Legislature and have either been signed into law or are awaiting the governor's signature.

I am most proud of a bill that adopts a provisional driver's license in Alaska. This was the top priority of MADD, the state PTA, and the Alaska Mental Health Board. Undoubtedly, this legislation will save teens' lives. Another piece of legislation that I sponsored was the end-of-life health care decision bill, also known as the "five wishes" bill. This was the top priory of AARP, Hospice, and many state health organizations.

Among other measures I sponsored that passed were bills or resolutions that:

• extend Alaska's Boater Safety Program (the "Kids Don't Float" program);

• address commercial fishing closures in Glacier Bay;

• ensure state management of our fisheries;

• establish an Office of Citizenship Assistance in Juneau to assist our new immigrants;

• assist small cruise ships to continue operating in Southeast Alaska;

• provide relief to parties bogged down in administrative hearings; and

• authorized the state to sell bonds for docks for the developing the Kensington mine.

Working with my colleagues, I helped get money into the State capital budget to buy land for the Juneau birth and family center ($150,000); continue vessel replacement and modernizing upgrades to the Alaska Marine Highway System ($143,000,000 in federal receipt authority); and appropriate money for the planning and design of a swimming pool in the valley ($125,000).

I voted with the majority of the state House to support the percent of market value approach to managing assets of the Alaska Permanent Fund. I also supported a constitutional spending limit, and a measure that would have established continuing payments for education, communities, and permanent fund dividends if POMV had passed.

My biggest disappointment was seeing measures that would address the fiscal gap fail to pass the Senate. Momentum peaked following the Conference of Alaskans and calls to action delivered by the governor, mayors, community and business leaders, and House action.

Work remains. Alaska's citizens remain divided on exactly how to address the fiscal problem, and the crisis in the education funding formula is long-term and demands a progressive and permanent legislative fix. Over this interim, I'll be working on these issues as well as organizing a task force that takes a long, hard look at the antiquated tax structure that oil companies enjoy. Alaskans demand that no stone be left unturned and that hard questions be asked.

• Bruce B. Weyhrauch represents House District 4, which includes the Mendenhall Valley, in the Alaska Legislature.

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