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Legislative update with Sen. Gary Stevens: education funding

Sen. Gary Stevens is serving as Senate President this legislative session. He’s also vice-chair of the Senate Education Committee.
Courtesy of Office of Sen. Gary Stevens
Sen. Gary Stevens is serving as Senate President this legislative session. He’s also vice chair of the Senate Education Committee.

The Alaska State legislative session is in full swing in Juneau, with big ticket items before legislators, including state spending, the retirement system and whether to increase education funding — or the base student allocation.

Over the next few weeks, KBBI will check in with Sen. Gary Stevens, a Republican who represents District C — which includes the Southern Kenai Peninsula, Kodiak Island and Seward — for the latest in the session.

On Thursday, KBBI’s Hope McKenney spoke with Sen. Stevens, Senate President and vice chair of the Senate Education Committee, to discuss one of his main legislative priorities: funding schools and education.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 


HOPE MCKENNEY: What are some of the top items on your agenda this week?

SEN. GARY STEVENS: Well I think the big issue — it’s what we started with when we organized the Senate Majority Caucus — two issues: The first was to adequately fund education. And the second was to work on retirement benefits for our state employees, teachers and everyone who works for the state. So those are still the two big issues: retirement and education funding. Then another one has sort of leapt out here, which really helps solve all of those, and that's having a sound fiscal policy. So that's where we are right now. I guess those three things are the three biggest issues we're dealing with, and I’d be glad to answer any questions you might have on them.

MCKENNEY: So you’re the vice chair of the Senate Education Committee. And as we know, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, among many across Alaska, are potentially facing severe budget cuts this year. Can you talk to me just about the latest on the negotiations around raising the BSA or base student allocation funding?

STEVENS: So right at this point, the education committee has moved out a bill — it's now in Senate Finance — and it raises the BSA by $1,000 in 2023. It also increases it in 2024, by an additional $348, and an inflation factor in the year 2025. So that's where the Senate Education Committee was when we moved [that bill] out of the committee. The House Education Committee has done a sort of a similar thing, but not exactly the same. They've increased the BSA by $680 in 2024, and another increase of $120 in 2025. So a total of $800 increase in those two years. And that just passed the House Education Committee, and is going next to the House Finance Committee. So both of those bills dealing with education funding are in both finance committees. You know, I was fairly confident that there would be a reduction when our bill got to the House. So we'll see where it actually goes.

I think there's often a misunderstanding, I had a lot of calls from folks about funding the schools, funding the swimming pools, and the theaters and all of that. But you know, how that really works is that our job in the legislature is to fund education. And then it's the job of your school board and your administration in the Kenai district to figure out how to spend that money. So we don't tell them, and would never tell them, you've got to open the pools, that's something they have to decide how it fits into their plan. So right now, I'd say between the House Education and the Senate Education committees we are in pretty good shape, an $800 increase to maybe $1000 or more in the Senate. It all depends on how those two bills work through the finance committees in the two bodies, and how they can pass the floor. But I think there's a realization finally, among most folks, that we are simply underfunding education, we have to find a way to get more money out there. We know what's happening is the student teacher ratio will be increased if we don't, and that doesn't necessarily help us improve our education scores and success and educating children.

MCKENNEY: Yeah. And do you think that that $1,000 amount, or $800 amount is sufficient?

STEVENS: Okay. Well that's a really good question. Is the amount in the Senate Finance Committee, is that sufficient? You know, I can tell you that it will probably not be higher than that. We have sent the bill out of — and I'm Vice Chair of the Senate Education Committee — and we sent a bill out, Senate Bill 52 at $1,000 for the BSA in 2023, and an increase of $348 in 2024 and then also an inflation factor for 2025. So that's the bill that left the House to the Senate Education Committee went to Senate Finance. The House Education Committee has done something a little less than that. That’s House Bill 65, out of House Education, they set an increase in BSA of $680 in 2024 with another increase of $120 in 2025, which totals $800 increase for those two years.

So there was a difference of opinion between the House and the Senate Education committees. And as you know, the way it normally works is that the education committees in the two houses are made up of people that are supportive of education and want to make sure that our students have successful careers in our districts. And the question is, is that enough? Well, I'm not sure. I'm just really concerned that even that amount that we've settled on in the Senate may not be approved by the House. So that's where we are in negotiations now. Both of those bills will go to Senate House Finance, and then eventually to the floor for discussion. So I'm hoping that we can keep the Senate numbers, but I'm not certain. It just depends on all sorts of things. Our negotiations that we talked with the body, but also the fiscal situation in the state of Alaska, which is in pretty bad shape right now, where some $900-some-million-dollars underwater at this point. And we've got to begin to address what we are going to do to solve that? So the fiscal crisis affects everything that we want to do. The two goals that my caucus had — adequately funding education and providing a pension plan for our employees — they both depend on what happens to that fiscal issue we're facing.

MCKENNEY: Thank you for that. And so shifting a little bit, what are your thoughts on the governor's recent actions focused on students’ sex and gender at schools? Can you comment on that?

STEVENS: Sure. Well, the governor presented two bills. The one bill would help fund teachers, give them a bonus. We're talking about that. I think more important than a bonus would be to solve the BSA problem, to put more money into the districts and the districts decide how best to spend it. They know better, your school district and your administration know better how to spend the money and how it best benefits our communities than the legislature does. So my goal is to try to get that money, the most we can, into the districts to help solve the problem. So tell me again, what's your question?

MCKENNEY: My question was just about your thoughts on the governor's actions focused on students’ sex and gender at schools?

STEVENS: Right. So you should understand the way I organized the Senate caucus, it has…eight Republicans and nine Democrats. And so what we agreed to when we started, is that we will not be dealing with far left or far right issues, our job is to stay right pretty much in the center where most Alaskans are. So I have assigned that bill to a committee. It's in the Judiciary Committee, and I have promised the governor will have a hearing on it. And that's about all I can do at this point. There's a lot of opposition to it among my [Republican] caucus. So I'm not sure that I'll have the numbers that will be needed to pass that out. We'll look at it very carefully, to see how it develops, see if it changes along the way. And there are a lot of concerns about that bill. So where it's going at this point, I really can't tell you, until we get into the nitty gritty of that bill and what it truly does and how it could be amended along the way as well.

MCKENNEY: And you said there's a lot of concern about the bill. Are you concerned about the bill and what it might do for LGBTQ students?

STEVENS: Certainly. You know, I taught at University of Alaska for over 25 years, I had many students who are LGBTQ, and many students who are in same sex marriages. I mean, I always believed that they deserve every right they had, and every assistance we can give them. So that's the problem, you know, does it cause difficulties? We really need to get into the foundation of that bill, and what it really does and what it doesn't do. I do have some concerns about some of the issues. I am concerned as a grandfather, I don't want my granddaughters to be in the same shower room, sharing bathrooms with young men who are transgender. So on a personal basis, that really does concern me. On the other hand, we really want to make sure that everyone is respected. And that's our job as educators is to respect everyone wherever they are, and try to do the best for them and help make them as successful as possible. So I guess that'd be my personal approach towards the issue, but it depends on what happens as that bill moves or does not move through the Judiciary Committee here in the Senate.

MCKENNEY: And can you give me an overview of where the funding bill is at? I know that there were significant changes right at the end that tied the BSA to inflation and an online checkbook that seemed like a big deal. Could you tell me where the funding bill is at?

STEVENS: So where we are right now, and the big issue, of course, has always been the Permanent Fund Dividend and just yesterday, the Senate Finance introduced a bill called 75%/ 25%. That 25% of the earnings reserve each year would be given out in a permanent fund dividend and 75% would be to help us fund state services. I'm not sure that's what's gonna wind up. The governor is 50/50, meaning 50% of that money goes to individuals for permanent fund dividend, and 50% is spent on government services. So that's the problem we are in right now. Where is that gonna fall by the time we get through all this? I know the permanent fund dividend is very important to people, I know for a lot of people, it's just crucial to them, they receive that dividend. On the other hand, it's also crucial to many people that we have education, police services, prisons and all of those things we have to pay for. So it's a balancing act. And we want to make sure we always have a permanent fund dividend. But where it's going to be, I really can't tell you. At this point, the governor would like to have a $3000-some dividend. At 25/75, I think it sounds around $1,200. 50/50 would be about $2,500. So that's an argument underway right now, we'll see how it turns out, I really can't tell you who's gonna win in on that.

And so the other issue that is out there, and that you need to be aware of, that we are talking about and working with the governor quite closely to talk about is what can we do in terms of taxes? We've got a couple of taxes we've been talking about on the oil companies. And we'll see how that turns out. Be glad to talk about those if you care to at some time. But one is to eliminate the loophole for S-corporations, where they do not pay an income tax to Alaska. And the other is the credit that the oil companies receive on taxable credit on oil. So that could be changed as well. So I don't think that we don't want to be drastic, we don't want to drive the oil industry out of business. We also want to make sure that everyone is paying their fair share, and Alaskans benefit from the oil they own.

MCKENNEY: Thank you. And yeah, kind of shifting back to education. Again, the Alaska Reads Act came online this year. How should that be a factor in the funding debate? I mean, is there enough money to make that program work, especially with all the budget pressures?

STEVENS: Well, there was a small amount in the Reads Act, a small amount to education, to the department to help solve that issue. But I know it was not enough. And that's one reason why we're trying to increase the BSA to make sure that every child, by the time they get to the end of third grade, can read at the proper level. I don't know if you saw the figures that came out: 80% of Alaskan children cannot read at level by the time they end the third grade. That's a shocking figure. I think it has a lot to do with COVID, with the fact that kids weren't in school as much as they normally are, that kids had to be home, that maybe they weren't given the help with their reading ability, so they could build their reading skills. So we have a long way to go. 80% of our children can't read at the end of the third grade at the level they should be reading at. Clearly we need to put some money into that entire Reads Act.

MCKENNEY: My last question for now: How are negotiations or talks with the House and the governor going on education funding currently?

STEVENS: Well, so far, the governor has been just great to work with. He has said to us, said to me, that he's interested in doing a package, which includes all of the potential funding that we can bring into the state and solving the permanent fund dividend issue. So that's where we're going. The House, I think, may be a little more problematic in that area. But I'm finding myself really in a closer working relationship with the governor and trying to continue working with the House and try to find that common ground with them. But really, there are three entities in all of this. And we all have to cooperate. We don't want the governor to be vetoing something we spent a lot of time working on. So the House and the Senate have to agree and then it goes to the governor for his veto. But the idea is that we all work together and cooperate and find some way to come together, a solution we can all support.

In 2019, Hope moved to Unalaska/Dutch Harbor to work for Alaska's Energy Desk and KUCB — the westernmost public radio newsroom in the country. She has lived, worked and filed stories from California, New York, Bolivia, Peru, Cuba and Alaska.
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