On Tuesday afternoon, before his Senate State Affairs Committee meeting, District P Senator Gary Stevens of Kodiak spoke to KBBI's Kathleen Gustafson for this Legislative Update.
In this interview, Senator Stevens predicts that the proposal to close the Homer DMV will be rejected by the legislature.
Shortly after this interview, the House Administration Budget Subcommittee voted, unanaimously, to reject the Department of Administration's proposal to close the Homer, Tok, Valdez, Haines and Delta Junction DMV offices.
Representative Sarah Vance of Homer voted against the closure.
This does not mean that the State cannot still close the DMVs, but does make it less likely.
Bills discussed in this interview:
SB 64 - Shellfish Projects and Hatcheries
SJR 9 - Urge Exemption for Cruise Ships
SB 32 - College Credit for High School Students
SB 24 - Virtual Meetings
SB 39 - Ballot Custody, Tampering, Vote-by-Mail, Voter Registration
Hi, congratulations, because I think the first bill of the year passed yesterday, allowing boards and commissions to meet electronically. And you made an amendment that allows members of the legislature to participate in committee meetings?
Yes. You know, we have a bill that we've been trying to get passed. It passed the Senate, didn't pass the House, which would allow us to meet remotely for the Senate and House floor sessions. But, the House has been unable to pass that.
Now, the problem is if things got really bad and a lot of people came down with COVID, this would allow us to move ahead and take action on the floor without everyone being here.
But we're not at that point yet. What you're talking about right now is to allow committees to meet remotely. Not all will do that. I know Finance is not going to do that. People are concerned or they're in ill health. They think they might be susceptible to the virus. They could choose to be in their office instead of at the committee meetings.
And this does allow them also then to vote, to move a bill out of committee.
I wanted to ask about Senate Bill 64 - Shellfish Projects and Hatcheries.
It's in the finance committee right now.
It's really a problem for those hatcheries, and mostly around the world.
They have closed up because of COVID, because of personnel and that sort of thing.
But this bill would encourage shellfish hatcheries. They've been really successful in places where they've had King crab before. Actually Norway is doing it in a place where they had never had king crab in the past. It seems to be fairly successful there to make sure that areas where we used to have a heavy king crab fishing.
Now they've been closed because of overfishing or whatever is the reason for that. They would have an opportunity to restock those areas.
When you say encourage, what do you mean?
I mean it makes it legal.
Okay. Monday in Senate Finance, you had three education bills up for hearing.
It's an accumulation from last year where all of our bills died, and we didn't have time because of COVID to complete the session.
The most important one to me is the early college bill that would encourage students around our state to be able to take college credit while they're in high school. It has to be through the University of Alaska and then the classes they take are approved and on a University of Alaska transcript.
So you can take that transcript anyplace in the world and have those classes accepted. And then of course it's actually paid for by the monies that we give the school districts. And it's at no cost to the student.
You're a co-sponsor for SJR 9 - Exemptions for cruise ships. It's on its way to the transportation committee.
So Senate Joint Resolution 9, it simply encourages U.S. Congress to try to find a way to allow cruise ships to come to Alaska this coming summer. Right now, ships have been that precluded because they, under the Jones Act, American made ships, can't leave an American port and arrive in an American port, they have to transit through a foreign port.
Because of COVID, Canada does not want our ships to come into their waters because they're fearful of contamination. Well, if we find a way to do it, SJR 9 would allow the ships to go from Seattle to, say, Juneau.
The lack of cruise ships has had a terrible impact on Juneau, Ketchikan, Sitka….
I can't imagine there's much opposition to that.
Oh, no, there is no opposition to the resolution, but there probably will be opposition in U.S. Congress.
There's a hearing Thursday, April 1st on Senate Bill 39, which is, I think, Senator Shower's bill on ballot custody, voter registration, and voting by mail. It repeals the law for automatic voter registration. It prohibits voting by mail and some local elections. Do you, Senator Stevens, support Senate Bill 39?
Well first, let me say I've, I've not heard it. I've been reading it and reading about it. I've not been on the committee that heard it.
I'll tell you my concern, and I know people are going to disagree with me, but I'm very concerned about voter suppression.
I believe that anybody who is a legitimate, honest voter, we need to make sure that that person has every opportunity to vote.
I have nothing against voting by mail. It's worked. It works in Anchorage. It works in Colorado. I always vote by mail, honestly, and usually vote early.
That's truly voting by mail.
So now that the State COVID disaster declaration is expired, does that mean
that Alaskans, and the Senate, can no longer make use of federal funds for disaster relief due to COVID?
Yes, probably the biggest issue we're dealing with right now, Kathleen.
So, we've got really two bills that do similar things.
One is a disaster declaration, very much like the one we had in the past. Another, which really specifies what rights we're giving the governor now.
Realize, the governor has asked us not to do a disaster declaration.
He doesn't want all those powers. But there are a few issues that have to be addressed, you know, like money's for SNAP assistance for buying food.
The concern has been about $8 million a month that might be lost if we don't do this right. So we're trying to make sure that we do it right, that we can get those funds.
There's also some issues about school districts as well as some issues that affect the seafood processing industry. So right now I can't tell you what the answer is going to be.
I do think that the disaster declaration, as we had in the past, that's probably not going to happen again. The governor has said he will veto that. So we're trying to work between the governor on the one hand, the Senate, on the other hand and the house.
Also, because there is a deadline coming up April 1st, that has some importance, we need to have that answer before then.
The governor is also proposing a spring PFD, which would make up the difference of what the state promised, but didn't deliver last year.
That money would have to be approved by the House and the Senate. Where could it possibly come from other than the Permanent Fund Earnings Reserve?
Well, that's exactly the problem. I mean, we just don't have the money right now. Fortunately, oil is going up a little bit around $70 ( a barrell) and that's advantageous to us, but that's not enough to solve all of our problems. We don't have the savings anymore. I think, in the end, we're going to have a PFD.
It'll be a modest PFD. I don't know what that means exactly, but we can't spend more money than we have.
That's simply what it's all about. We probably won't know until the very end of session, how much that PFD is going to be.
Okay. What about an update on the status of the Alaska Marine Highway System?
Well, I understand that Admiral Barrett,who was in charge of the sub committee task force that is looking into that, is making a report today.
His recommendation is that another organization would be formed to run the Marine Highway. And I think that probably makes sense. That'll be a long process to do that. But, of course, beyond the organization of how do you manage the Marine Highway is also the issue of replacing the vessels.
And we know we need to do that. The Tustumena is over 50 years old and has been in rough waters for all that time. And we have got some federal monies that will help us to construct a new vessel.
I know that the House, having taken so long to organize, is already saying they know they're going to have a 120 day session.
Yeah. We can't leave without having a budget passed by both bodies. So, those negotiations on the budget will be taking place right at the very end. Now, constitutionally, we can meet for 120, actually, 121 days. And looking at how long it's taking the house to organize and actually begin moving bills, I'm fairly certain that we will not be out of here before 121 days.
Last call for anything you might like to discuss or share with the constituents.
Well, I know one issue that is important to Homer is the DMV and the thought that we might lose that office in Homer. We're working hard to avoid that. You know, it just does not make any sense to lose that. That office, actually in the end, brings in more money than it expends. It does a better job than other offices of the DMV. So, it would be a hardship for many people in Homer if they didn't have a DMV. There are some things that only government can do, and this is one of them. And, they do it efficiently and effectively and inexpensively. I can pretty much guarantee you that we're not going to lose the DMV in Homer.
Thanks so much for your time.
OK, thanks, Kathleen.Great to hear from you and let's keep it up.
Oh, sure. I figure I'll try to get you every other week.