Jesse Bjorkman, left, and Justin Ruffridge take part in forums organized by the Peninsula Clarion and KDLL ahead of the November 2022 election. Bjorkman and Ruffridge won seats in the Alaska State Senate and Alaska State House of Representatives, respectively, and are slated to begin work in Juneau on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023. (Composite photo)

Jesse Bjorkman, left, and Justin Ruffridge take part in forums organized by the Peninsula Clarion and KDLL ahead of the November 2022 election. Bjorkman and Ruffridge won seats in the Alaska State Senate and Alaska State House of Representatives, respectively, and are slated to begin work in Juneau on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023. (Composite photo)

Bjorkman, Ruffridge prepare for 1st legislative session

They will officially get to work on Jan. 17 — the first day of the 33rd Alaska Legislature’s first regular session

When representatives from across Alaska convene at the capitol building in Juneau next week, there will be two new faces repping the central Kenai Peninsula.

Former Soldotna City Council member Justin Ruffridge and outgoing Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly member Jesse Bjorkman emerged victorious in 2022’s statewide election and will officially get to work on Jan. 17 — the first day of the 33rd Alaska Legislature’s first regular session.

Ruffridge represents District 7, which includes the communities of Kenai and Soldotna, while Bjorkman represents District C, which covers the northern half of the Kenai Peninsula including Kenai and Soldotna. In addition to being first-time state lawmakers, Ruffridge and Bjorkman are the first to represent newly redrawn and renamed legislative districts, which changed after 2021 redistricting triggered by the most recent decennial census.

Bjorkman said Wednesday that his time in Juneau has been “eye-opening” but also “a lot of fun.” Bjorkman in November was named a member of the Senate majority caucus and is set to chair the Senate Labor & Commerce Committee. In that capacity, Bjorkman said he hopes to prioritize workforce development, citing a need for more skilled workers on the Kenai Peninsula Borough.

“I’m encouraged by the amount of people we have that are dedicated to working together,” Bjorkman said.

Ruffridge said in the days since he’s arrived in Juneau, it’s been helpful to make in-person connections with other lawmakers who he’d previously only conversed with over Zoom. He said the face-to-face interaction has also helped when it comes to organization, which he views as being the biggest roadblock to work in the House.

A consistent theme Ruffridge said he encountered while on the campaign trail is what he called a “cry for stability,” which he said is not just limited to state finances. It’s that desire for stability, he said, that will guide his work on issues like health care and education as well.

Ruffridge said he hopes to leverage his existing relationships with leaders across the central peninsula to help advance local priorities in Juneau. He was able to meet with local leaders about which issues take precedence, before flying south. The City of Soldotna and the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District have already finalized their respective wishlists for the 33rd Legislature.

Among the school district’s priorities are career and technical opportunities, boosting the number of students at or above grade level in English Language-Arts and supporting extracurricular activities. The retention and recruitment of staff, creation of new ways for Alaskans to become teachers and inflation-proofing the state’s base student allocation are also district priorities.

State lawmakers last year approved a $30 increase to the base student allocation, which is the amount of money school districts receive per pupil. A separate effort to inflation-proof the base student allocation failed last year. KPBSD’s finance director said Monday that the district is facing a $13.1 million deficit for the upcoming fiscal year, and will be looking to the state for assistance.

The City of Soldotna is emphasizing funding for city capital projects in its own list of priorities. The city last October awarded a contract to Navigate AK for lobbying services, with the goal of “monitoring, identifying, and prioritizing challenges and opportunities for the City of Soldotna” as it relates to issues being considered by the Alaska Legislature, state agencies and Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

Soldotna City Manager Stephanie Queen in a Jan. 4 memo to council members outlined four projects that city administration recommends be the focus of lobbying efforts for the upcoming session. The list includes requests for $4.5 million for the Soldotna field house, $4.6 million for the expansion of the conference room at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex, $320,000 for preventative maintenance on city streets and $300,000 for technology and safety upgrades for the Soldotna Police Department.

Two lists of prefiled bills for the upcoming session published earlier this week offered a glimpse into what topics lawmakers hope to tackle early on. As they prepare for the first day of the session, both Bjorkman and Ruffridge emphasized their commitment to remaining accessible to constituents while in Juneau and encouraged people to reach out to their offices with any questions.

More information about the 33rd Alaska Legislature, including information about bills and lawmakers, can be accessed at akleg.gov.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulalclarion.com.

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