School funding, pensions among Sen. Gary Stevens' priorities for upcoming legislative session
The Alaska State Legislature begins its session Tuesday. Sen. Gary Stevens is a Republican who represents District C, including the Southern Kenai Peninsula, Kodiak Island and Seward.
Stevens is serving as Senate President this session. KBBI’s Desiree Hagen sat down with him Friday to discuss his legislative priorities.
SEN. GARY STEVENS: We've got several bills out there that I want to continue with. It's a little more difficult when you are the Senate president and carrying the bill, because people can hold up your bill in order to get something else that they want.
DESIREE HAGEN: So, tell me about priorities for the upcoming legislative session.
STEVENS: Sure, well, you should know that the caucus, the 17-member of the 20 Senators' caucus, has been talking about what our priorities will be. We haven’t formalized or finalized those. That will happen in the next few days. But the big issues, of course, are pretty clear. One is we need to address education funding, K-12. We know that we have not added funds over the years and the cost of educating children has increased — just the cost of personnel, the cost of heating fuel, and all those things have increased.
So, I think there's general consensus that we will do that probably with some strings attached as to we expect our districts to do.
Another very important issue, I think, is the issue of the retirement pension plan. You know, we did away with that twelve years ago or so, because it was so expensive, and it was just driving us into a hole. We've been trying to address that for some time, I believe this year, we can find a resolution to that. The problem it's caused is in trying to attract folks to come work for the state or to become teachers, or policemen or firemen, because there is no pension program. It's all what's called direct contribution.
So folks have to figure out their own retirement.
Other issues out there, of course, the Permanent Fund Dividend is a big one, of course, we need to resolve that.
The issue of our natural resources. The Resources Committee will be very busy this year dealing with oil and mining and fisheries. Those are very important. So, for me personally, if you're asking what do I want to accomplish, it really comes down to two things:
The first is not to overdraw the Permanent Fund. I think we've established a 5% percent of market value to help fund the government and pay for our permanent fund dividend. If we can maintain that Permanent Fund, it will be there for years. The second thing that I personally want to see is that we avoid any income tax or sales tax. The others are specific goals that we'll be working on in future.
HAGEN: You mentioned the 17-member caucus. Can you succinctly share what a caucus is and what it does?
STEVENS: I'll do my best. So, we only have 20 members of the Senate. And for some issues, it's very important that we have 15 or even 16 members. If we have that number, we can move readily through our session, we can fund issues, we can pass a budget. So, it is important to have 15 members anyway. Now we have 17. And that's fine, too. I've never seen such a big caucus. But understand that it is a bipartisan caucus. It has Democrats and Republicans in it. One of the reasons we've done that is that in the past an all-Republican caucus was unable to get together to pass a budget. I've been President before with a bipartisan caucus, I think it works very well. And frankly it means, Desiree, is that we are not going to be able to deal with the far left and far right. We're going to deal with those things in the center, which I think are most important to Alaska.
HAGEN: Did you file any pre-filed bills? Or is there anything that you're actively working on?
STEVENS: There are a couple issues out there. One that has to do with vaping. We know that vaping is a tremendous problem. And we're concerned about our children. And federally, most states have a requirement that you have to be 20 years old to buy tobacco products and vaping products are included in that. That bill will bring us up to state standards, which really means that more federal money would come in to help educate kids about the dangers of nicotine addiction.
The other bills that are out there, one that I think is really important. The University of Alaska’s accreditation is a really important issue. It lost accreditation. The university did here in Anchorage. One bill that I introduced last session that didn’t quite make it through would be that the university report to us on a regular basis on how they are approaching accreditation. Are there any problems? And is there any chance that they may lose accreditation? It's really important the legislature be on top of this and be advised and know what's going on.
HAGEN: I'm wondering what's going on with the Homer Harbor Expansion Project?
STEVENS: Well, it's certainly at the top of the list for Homer, it’s a very important project. I absolutely support it. It's a little early. You know, we don't know exactly what our capital projects, how much money that we've got to put into capital projects. But there are federal funds and I want to make sure that our budget reflects that. Absolutely, that's a crucial issue, I think. Someone will really have to work on this coming session, so a little early to tell you exactly what's going to happen but I'm sure you will find funding I hope in that capital budget for the Homer Harbor.