Constituents question future of education, oil and gas during town hall

Education and the oil and gas industry were at the forefront of people’s minds this weekend when they got a chance to get together with their legislators Saturday.

Sen. Peter Micciche (R-Soldotna), Rep. Gary Knopp (R-Kenai) and Rep. Mike Chenault (R-Nikiski) fielded questions and concerns about the current session of the Legislature during a town hall meeting in Soldotna. It was standing room only in the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly Chambers as constituents drilled the lawmakers on the budget and oil and gas industry, and asked them to keep certain industries and areas of the budget in mind this session — specifically, education and fisheries.

Micciche began the town hall by presenting some background information on Senate Bill 70, which would restructure the Permanent Fund in an effort to address the state’s approximately $3 billion deficit. The bill would draw 5 and a quarter percent of the average market value of the fund for three years, he said, and then go down to 5 percent. If passed, Micciche said the bill would help balance the budget by 2024. It would include a spending limit of $4.1 billion and a revenue limit of $1.2 billion.

“I’m not going slap an income tax on folks because it feels good, I’m going to tax you if we can’t pay our bills,” he said. “And this pays our bills.”

Micciche said he has heard from some constituents who are in favor of paying more taxes to help balance the budget, and others who are staunchly against it. He pointed out that Alaskans pay very little in state taxes — just $500 per capita annually, he presented, on fuel, alcohol and tobacco.

“Just think about that when you think about your tax burden in the state of Alaska,” Micciche said. “Let’s be realistic about it and have a frank discussion about what it costs to be Alaskan. If you apply your dividend this year to it, you paid minus $500 in state taxes.”

Several members of the public implored Knopp, Chenault and Micciche to keep education funding from being cut during this session. Others advocated for a forward funding approach for schools in order to give districts more time to react to their budgets.

“I would like to see an agreement where education knows what they’re getting for the following school year instead of having to fumble around in the summer when the final numbers come down,” Micciche said.

Chenault pointed out that forward funding has been done in the past as well. While the lawmakers said the Legislature has not cut the education budget yet, they said they could not promise no cuts in the future.

Borough Mayor Mike Navarre spoke up to explain the cuts that have been felt locally in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District as the result of the rising costs of health care and adjustment for inflation over time.

Health care was another area of concern brought up by constituents, as was a greater emphasis on alternative energy sources at the state level. Knopp said he supports pursuing alternative energy, but that “the first obligation is affordable and reliable energy in these communities, and that’s what we have.”

“It’s a struggle,” he said. “We should keep pursuing it, but for me personally, I’d like to see the private markets pursuing that, not government … We can help it along, incentivize it, help expedite permitting, but … all of that technology’s been around a long time, it’s just not proven yet.”

In addition to the questions constituents had, Micciche spoke to efforts to revise SB 91, the sweeping crime reform bill passed last session. They include correcting more than a dozen issues he said were found in SB 91, and introducing SB 54, a bill he said would increase sentences for class C felonies and increase the punishment for those who repeatedly violate conditions of release.

Navarre also advocated for a good working relationship between the majority and minority legislators, who will have to “bridge their philosophical divides in order to get there” when it comes to solving the state’s fiscal crisis.

“I just want to caution folks on both sides that nobody in Juneau … believes that we can get out of this without the Permanent Fund being a part of it, nobody,” Navarre said. “There is no rational fiscal plan that doesn’t at this time use some earnings of the Permanent Fund. And by the way, that’s what it was set up for originally.”

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