Peninsula legislators preview next session

With a month until legislators head back to Juneau for the next regular session, the House and Senate majorities are as far apart as last year about budget fixes.

The Kenai Peninsula’s legislators, two of whom hold leadership positions in the House and Senate majorities, spoke to the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly about the expected topics in the upcoming session. Though they agreed about most social issues regarding crime and public health, the budget was still the central source of debate.

Sen. Peter Micciche (R-Soldotna), who served as the Senate Majority Leader in the last session, said the majority still planned to oppose raising any new taxes. With the price of oil and production both on the upswing, more recent projections have estimated that the current downturn is temporary, ending in about 2024 or 2025, he said.

“Our goal now, even though we’ve cut substantially, is to cut the growth and just beat inflation,” he told the assembly. “… The Senate is not supporting additional revenue at this time.”

On the other end of the spectrum, the bipartisan majority in the House of Reprsentatives still wants to see some kind of additional tax in place. Rep. Paul Seaton (R-Homer), who was one of the co-chairs of the newly formed 22-member bipartisan coalition, told the assembly that part of the House’s desire for new revenue was to support public education funding.

“The Senate is very dogmatic about not diversifying revenues,” he said. “We in the House majority were dogmatic about not accepting the K-12 base student allocation cuts proposed by the Senate. … I do not think there will be any revenue diversification proposed in the next year because it’s (dead on arrival) in the Senate.”

He said the assembly will likely also feel future cuts at the state level because the state supports the borough government through programs like municipal revenue sharing as well as through economic activity by the distribution of the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend. He said he didn’t see much future for last year’s proposed motor fuel tax as the Senate was opposed to raising any taxes and the Municipality of Anchorage Assembly just approved its own motor fuel tax.

Rep. Mike Chenault (R-Nikiski), who is part of the House Minority, said Gov. Bill Walker’s administration is looking at another tax on commercial and private planes as another type of revenue, which he disagreed with.

“I believe like the Senate does that we don’t need to look at taxing Alaskans on every issue that’s there,” he said. “I don’t know the effect that (an airplane tax would) have on our borough.”

Rep. Gary Knopp (R-Kenai), who is also part of the House Minority, didn’t weigh in on taxes to the assembly but said he expected a few bills to come up from last year, including the motor fuel tax and the omnibus worker’s compensation reform bill.

“The only thing that people seem to agree on is that the workman’s comp appeal board should probably go away, which this bill would do,” he said. “The contentious part of the bill was how to handle independent contractors, and I received calls from our cities about it.”

The legislators expressed support for the Legislature’s recent work on Senate Bill 54, which added additional reforms to the criminal justice system after the passage of SB 91 last year. Some senators have promised to introduce a bill to repeal SB 91 in its majority and start over, Knopp said.

Micciche said the state was facing a serious rash in crime around the time of SB 91’s passage and that SB 54 should return some of the tools to law enforcement to help curb some of the lower level crimes while maintaining the good changes in SB 91, such as reforming the length of sentences for the most serious crimes.

“It’s kind of a perfect storm with not only the opioid problem, the courts changing their bail schedule at the same time which exacerbated the lower-level crime issue,” he said. “…We’re pretty satisfied with the changes, we think they did a pretty good job.”

The ongoing opioid crisis was a topic of concern for the assembly as well. Assembly member Kelly Cooper asked what the state’s plans were to kick in support for handling the crisis at the local level. Seaton said the Legislature did enact House Bill 159, which included some restrictions opioid prescription and a database for prescriptions, but it was hard for the Legislature to go into the medical profession with a regulatory aim.

Micciche said the state should take a more preventative approach to drug trafficking as well and look to economic development in small communities to keep people engaged so they may not take to substance abuse as much.

“We’ve been the state that is the easiest for stopping the flow of drugs in this country,” he said. “…We need to get more active on prevention and tougher on the folks that are willing to take profits at the expense of people’s lives.”

Assembly members also asked the legislators about the future of the Alaska LNG Project, which, as planned, would have its terminus in Nikiski. Chenault said he was “cautiously optimistic” after Walker’s recent announcement of a joint development agreement in China and other marketing efforts in Asia. However, that joint development agreement didn’t include much new information, and the project still has to be economically viable to go forward, he said.

“It affects my community probably the most of any community in the state, as far as the actual impact of property and all the things that are going to come along with that,” Chenault said. “I hope that we’re really going to get to see some information. … Until the administration puts that information forward, we’re in the same vacuum that all of you are.”

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