Halfway through the legislative session, Rep. Bryce Edgmon weighs in on state budget
The Alaska legislature is halfway through the 2023 session. Independent House District 37 Rep. Bryce Edgmon came into the KDLG studio on Friday to discuss education funding and other budget items, including state primacy of Section 404-c of the Clean Water Act.
The House Finance Committee meets at 1:30 p.m. today to discuss the operating, mental health and supplemental budget items. Public testimony on supplemental budget items will begin at 3 p.m. today. There will also be public testimony Tuesday through Thursday on the operating and mental health budgets.
Read more about this week's schedule and how to testify in the Dillingham Legislative Information Office newsletter
For instructions on how to testify, call Dillingham's legislative information office at 907-842-5319 or visit the legislative office at 104 Main St. in Dillingham.
Edgmon's daughter Emma joined him in the studio for this interview, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Izzy Ross: To get started, we’re at the midpoint of the legislative session. One of the big issues in the news and being discussed by the legislature is education funding and what base student allocation is going to look like moving forward. There have been some requests to raise it for schools. Where are we at in that process?
Bryce Edgmon: Well, first off, good to be here in person. So the legislature is at about the halfway point of the session. The session normally is 120 days, and we're just a little bit past the 60-day mark, which means that we're getting serious about putting the operating budget together. That takes several weeks to go through the hearing process and the public participation process and so forth.
In terms of the base student allocation, the BSA as it's called, that discussion is well underway in both the House and the Senate. The governor has said that he's interested in increasing education funding to some level. And the question really on the table is not whether we're going to fund the BSA this year, but to what level. I'm involved in those discussions. It's a big priority of mine to get the maximum amount of funding we can to our schools. To also, speaking of the governor, take a hard look at the two bills that he put in, one which was bonus payments for school teachers that really hasn't yet gotten full consideration in the legislature. It will in the weeks to come.
But in terms of the operating budgets, the House this past week saw its subcommittees close out. Each state agency has a committee that deals with it individually — those are called subcommittees. This next week, we're going to bring all that together, and began the process of working on the operating budget, examining all the components separately and sending that out on the House floor in likely a week to two weeks.
I would take a second to let people know that next week will be their opportunity during public testimony to comment on the operating budget. But I would certainly welcome, if there's any questions about the BSA or any other part of the budget, people to call my office or call me directly. We're really kind of getting into that second part of the session where things are beginning to finally take shape.
Ross: I was reading an article by the Anchorage Daily News in preparation for this interview where ADN reported that the Senate's bill for base student allocation would increase it by $1,000 in the coming year. And that would translate to an increase of about $260 million in state spending on K-12 education. What are the discussions looking like in the House?
Edgmon: Yeah, the House is not quite as far along as the Senate is in terms of its determination of funding level. And part of that is due to the makeup of the House; it's a little bit more divided on a lot of issues then the Senate is. The question is going to become whether or not that $1,200 BSA, which I think that's sort of the ceiling of where things are with funding, encompassing about $250 million, whether that actually gets enough support to get through.
So to go back to the BSA, aside from the funding amount and how much the legislature wants to devote to increasing things, the other issue is whether we actually pass a law that puts that BSA increased permanently in the statute or whether we do a one time funding amount, which is commonly called funding outside the BSA. So all that sort of up in the air, but I'm optimistic. And again, it's a big priority of mine personally, and on behalf of the district.
Ross: I think a lot of schools are looking towards this Alaska Reads Act implementation that's going into effect this upcoming school year, and kind of bracing for those changes, and also looking to the state for additional funding to implement those changes as well. So it'll be interesting to see what happens there.
Another budget item is state primacy under the Clean Water Act. For many folks listening in Bristol Bay, when we think of the Clean Water Act, we think of Pebble and the role that the Clean Water Act played in the recent EPA veto of that project. I'm curious to hear what it means for this state primacy to be a budget item this session.
Edgmon: Yeah, so this issue came up last year as well as in the governor's budget submission again this year. It involves basically giving the Department of Environmental Conservation $5 million to hire 28 employees and likely more in the future. So that the state on behalf of DEC can assume primacy over probably the most controversial section of the Clean Water Act, the 404 section, which deals with the dredge and fill component of the Clean Water Act.
It’s a provision of the Clean Water Act, it's been around since 1972, but just a very small number of states have actually seen it through to the actual state takeover of the 404-c section. Alaska under the Dunlevy administration is attempting to do that. There is support for it in the legislature, but there's also skepticism, because of the dollar amounts and the intricacies involved with the state taking over a program that's been in place through the EPA and the Corps of Engineers in Alaska for many years. I'm not sure where it's going to go. But I do know it's going to be controversial until probably the final sort of steps involved in the budget process.
I'm looking at it with a critical eye, because I don't see the benefit vis-à-vis the cost that's involved. And it's not just the cost today, but it's the cost tomorrow of adding additional staff to the DEC program. Then we also can't lose sight of the fact that there's going to be litigation that's going to be involved, a lot of steps and turns. At this point, it's the federal government that intervenes and pays those costs. And so, yeah, I'm pretty concerned about it, actually. And we're going to be keeping a very, very close eye on it throughout the process.
Ross: You mentioned adding additional staff to the DEC to the State Department of Environmental Conservation. And one of another issue that we've been hearing about this year has been the fact that the workforce is down in Alaska, including in state government. And I'd love to hear your perspective on that as well. I think different industries have been faced with this challenge across the state. But what does it mean on that level?
Edgmon: Yeah, workforce shortages. It's a growing issue of course across the country, but Alaska I think it's more pronounced in a lot of ways. And it's not just the private sector, but it's the public sector as well; a lot of state agencies are seeing maybe a quarter of their job listings being vacant at this point. It's an issue that, I think also sort of takes along with the fact that Alaska's losing population, we're losing a lot of younger people, a lot of working-age people are leaving the state. I wouldn't say the mass exodus, but it's a slow trickle out that, over a period of time, it's now well above 30,000 people that would ordinarily be in Alaska working jobs that are going unfilled. So the legislature is about to begin work on a task force, it was an idea that I proposed, a Workforce Shortage Task Force.
I would say that the bigger issue at the moment is where the state goes back to defined benefits retirement plan. And that's a pension plan where a retiree gets a set amount of benefits every month in their retirement years. The concern in the past that led to the program going away was that it created a huge unfunded liability for the state, while we've sort of come up with a different approach this time, where we would sort of scale back to health care benefits, one of the big cost drivers and retirement benefits, but still allow that pension part to be available to state retirees.
That's getting looked at very closely in the legislature right now. And I think we can show that we can put all that in the place and not incur an additional financial liability for the state in years down the road, then it's got a pretty good chance of getting passed. But really clear to me that we need a defined benefit plan, and we should be looking closely at it. We're seeing teachers, we're seeing state workers, we're seeing anyone involved with the state government really, at a certain period, either one deciding not to work for the state or working for just a short period of time, and then migrating elsewhere to another state that's got better retirement benefits.
Ross: Speaking with educators, superintendents, folks in the education system, that's one of the things that they brought up, is wanting that security and that investment on the state's behalf into their retirement. I think the stakes are quite high for many folks, thinking about this session and thinking about what that could look like. As we move forward this spring and towards the next school year.
When are these discussions going to be happening about the budget in the coming weeks? When can people expect to hear an update? You mentioned that there is a chance for the public to weigh in next week?
Edgmon: Yes. So we have public testimony in front of the House Finance Committee, which I'm a member of. And the expectation is that in the next week to two weeks, the operating budget will go from the House to the Senate. And the Senate, being a smaller body generally can pivot and react a little more quickly than the House. But we're at that stage of the session now to where things are getting serious consideration in the operating budget and the capital budget. I should mention both, which is chaired by Senator Hoffman on the Senate side and myself on the House side. But the capital budget will be forthcoming later on after the operating budget.
Ross: Lastly, do you all have anything fun planned for the rest of the day?
Emma Edgmon: Probably hanging out with one of my friends and going on the snow machine.
Ross: Welcome back. Have a great trip. And thank you both so much for coming in today.
Bryce Edgmon: Yes, it's certainly been our pleasure. Thank you.
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