Rep. Justin Ruffridge, R-Soldotna, speaks in support of debating an omnibus education bill in the Alaska House Chambers on Monday, Feb. 19, 2024 in Juneau, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Rep. Justin Ruffridge, R-Soldotna, speaks in support of debating an omnibus education bill in the Alaska House Chambers on Monday, Feb. 19, 2024 in Juneau, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Ruffridge talks successes, unfinished business after freshman session in Juneau

Ruffridge is up for election this year, facing a challenger in former-Rep. Ron Gillham

Now a month removed from the end of his freshman session in the State Legislature, Rep. Justin Ruffridge, R-Soldotna, said that he’s celebrating successes in health care and education while hoping for the opportunity to take another look at issues like Cook Inlet natural gas, school funding and the correspondence allotment program.

Speaking Wednesday, Ruffridge said that education and energy were his focus and mission “from day one.” As co-chair of the House Education Committee, he spent a lot of time on those issues.

Senate Bill 140 was an omnibus bill that included increased per-student state funding, a charter school coordinator position, added funding for Alaska Reads Act intervention programs and bumped funding for correspondence students and student transportation, among other things. The bill was passed by the State Legislature but was vetoed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

Ruffridge said the bill was a “good start.” He said he had been happy to see it pass and was disappointed to see it vetoed. Despite that setback for education, he said there were several other successes that did reach the finish line, like House Bill 148, which updates the Alaska Performance Scholarship to raise its maximum amount and expand eligibility. That bill is now waiting to be signed by the governor.

“That was a big push for the Ruffridge office, to try to get that across the finish line,” he said. “That was a big, big win.”

Another win, Ruffridge said, was a bill that passed that would allow correspondence school programs to continue for the next year — which his office wrote the language for. That was House Bill 400.

Correspondence school programs were thrust into uncertainty when an April superior court ruling declared the allotment programs unconstitutional, citing part of the Alaska Constitution that says public funds cannot be used to benefit private or religious educational institutions.

Ruffridge said he was proud of the role his office got to play in responding to that issue, which arose very late in the session. He said they moved quickly and delivered tangible results. The bill was passed on the last day of the session, and will see the programs continue for the next school year while legal questions are resolved elsewhere.

“That was a really big deal, to make sure that we have at least some semblance of order going into the next school year for those correspondence kids,” he said. “H.B. 400, which was what we wrote, said two things. We do think that individualized learning plans should exist — that’s how we govern how those dollars for correspondence are spent. Secondly, we should have a homeschool allotment program.”

Ruffridge said “the bulk” of people are using allotments correctly. He said the idea or depiction of the program as “a big black box of unconstitutional spending” is “off track.” He said he wants to see the program continue, with whatever oversight is necessary, restoring stability to students and parents.

That stability is important, he said. That’s what he’s hearing from constituents. As school districts — including the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District — await one-time funding included in this year’s budget, they’re once again seeing a “stop gap” measure that does not provide stability. Next year they’ll be back looking for funding.

Other wins came through several bills his office saw passed that were connected to health care.

He pointed to House Bill 56, which exempts veterinarians from the prescription drug monitoring program. He said that brought help to vets and increased protections for people’s health care information.

House Bill 112, he said, increased access to emergency medication for anaphylaxis response. It also “was able to clean up some of the statutes” related to pharmacies. Those included widening licensing regulations for internet-based pharmacies and restricting businesses from calling themselves an “apothecary” without employing a licensed pharmacist.

Both of those bills were signed into law by the governor in July 2023.

Ruffridge also highlighted to House Bill 309, which would allow optometrists to delegate many routine tasks to assistants, and House Bill 371, which gives greater flexibility to medical review organizations, to “understand and prevent” deaths in the state. Both were also passed in May and are awaiting the governor’s signature.

Passing a balanced budget, without requiring a special session, is also exciting, he said.

Energy is a space where Ruffridge said more work needs done. There were bills he supported that didn’t make it to the finish line.

Royalty relief is important to see readdressed, he said. He pointed to House Bill 307, which did pass and which included property tax exemptions for producers of “a new type of power.”

“A natural gas producer not only is paying extensive property tax, but also paying a royalty,” he said. “Enstar has been very transparent. If we don’t have some sort of solution that comes forward, we will be moving down the road of importing natural gas to bridge the gap between what we need now and what our energy use will be in the future.”

Again, he said, what people want is stability.

“That’s tough,” he said. “That needs another look in the next legislative session.”

Seeking stability is why Ruffridge said he also wants to see more done for education next session.

There is “a real inflationary pressure being applied,” he said, across all walks of life. Government spending is up in “pretty much” every category, “with the exception of education.” He said he anticipates next year to see legislators again pursue a full education package.

“Something that deals with funding, something that deals with reforms, something that puts some accountability in there,” he said. The charter school coordinator described in S.B. 140 is an option that he likes.

“S.B. 140 wasn’t entirely perfect, but I think that was a good start,” he said. “I hope to see something like that make a return.”

Ruffridge is up for election this year, facing a challenger in former-Rep. Ron Gillham, who he defeated in 2022. Ruffridge said that, if reelected, he hopes to continue working on priorities like energy and education in the next session. Ruffridge said he’s proud of the work his office did in its first session.

In Juneau, “living on a postage stamp,” he said he learned quickly that relationships and conversations are paramount. Often, to see results, he said he would need to identify disagreements, have conversations about those disagreements and seek meaningful change despite those disagreements.

“Politics can be very divisive,” he said. “We did a really good job of making sure that we were there to do the work … come to some sort of conclusion that is meaningful to the constituents.”

Reach reporter Jake Dye at jacob.dye@peninsulaclarion.com.

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