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Altaf Rahamatulla on April 27, 2010 - 11:34am
Unlike most states in the country, Alaska was able to increase spending and maintain a surplus due to increased gas and oil tax revenue. However, the state has not been immune from the economic impact of the downturn as the unemployment rate has increased over the past year and reached 8.6 percent in March. Nevertheless, the state took significant steps to protect children, expand health care access, and establish a statewide energy efficiency plan.
Tax and Budget: The Legislature approved a $3.1 billion omnibus capital plan, which included in $1 billion in federal funds for infrastructure projects. Increasing revenues allowed lawmakers to deposit $401 million in the state's savings account to cover funds that were previously borrowed. State revenue forecasts are steadily growing as a result of higher oil prices and analysts predict that the Alaska's reserve account will top $12 billion in the coming months.
- Gas and Oil Tax: The Legislature moved SB305 to separate the gas and oil tax. Sen. Bert Stedman, the bill's sponsor, related that if the initiative did not pass, the state could potentially lose up to $2 billion annually as a result of the opening of a major new gas pipeline and market conditions pushing oil prices higher relative to gas, which could lead to "to the state 'giving away' its resource." Indeed, the issue was highly contentious and almost caused a legislative meltdown after the House disapproved of the Senate's passage of the bill. The House eventually reversed course after intense pressure from the Senate. Gov. Sean Parnell, who has publicly disputed Sen. Stedman's claims and labeled the $2 billion figure as "mythological," will decide whether to approve the the measure this week.
- Cruise Tax: SB312 will reduce the cruise ship passenger tax from $46 to $34.50 per passenger and eliminate an impact fund that was created to fund projects in communities affected by the cruise ship industry. Since the tax was approved by voters in 2006, the Alaska Cruise Association has fought for its repeal. This tax cut will result in a $22 million drop in state revenue next year.
- Tax Credits: Alaska legislators enacted countless corporate tax credits. Some of the major tax breaks include SB236, that will provide credits for firms that donate to universities and career schools and SB309, which offers credits for gas exploration and development.
Health Care: With almost 20 percent of Alaskans lacking access to health coverage, including 25,600 children, lawmakers made it a point to enact several important health care initiatives. SB13, championed by groups such as the Alaska Center for Public Policy and lawmakers, including Sen. Johnny Ellis, expanded the state's Denali KidCare program eligibility to 200 percent of the federal poverty level, which will allow an additional 1,277 children and 225 pregnant women to receive care.
SB172 reauthorizes the Health Care Commission in the state Department of Health and Social Services to oversee the creation and development of a state health plan. Other prominent health care developments include:
- SB199, legislation that will provide for a two-year funding cycle for dental benefits for Medicaid recipients,
- HB350, which aims to bolster the quality of health care provision and protect patients by preventing nurses from working mandatory overtime if it is not necessary, and
- SB10, a bill that requires health care insurers provide coverage for care for patients during approved clinical trials to test and improve prevention and treatment of cancer and directs the Department of Health and Social Services to provide Medicaid services to persons who participate in those clinical trials.
Progressive legislators successfully defeated HJR35, a proposed attack on national health reform in the form of an amendment to the state's constitution to prohibit the federal government from mandating any Alaskan purchase health insurance; Gov. Sean Parnell, however, joined 19 other states in a costly and highly partisan lawsuit against federal health care reform.
Energy: A key progressive victory this session was the passage of a statewide energy policy, HB306, which promotes the development of renewable energy sources, weatherization, and general energy conservation. The legislation sets an ambitious renewable portfolio standard, aiming to generate 50 percent of the state's power from renewable energy by 2025 and achieve a 15 percent increase in energy efficiency between 2010 and 2020.
SB220, the Alaska Sustainable Energy Act, enacts a variety of energy provisions, including a revolving loan program to fund energy efficiency improvement in public buildings, linking benefits for the state's Heating Assistance Program to the price of oil, loans for energy efficiency for businesses, and support for new nuclear energy projects. Rep. Pete Petersen praised the "bold step toward making affordable energy available for all Alaskans and creating good-paying energy industry jobs in Alaska."
Lawmakers also passed SB309 and HB280 to encourage further oil and gas exploration of the Cook Inlet basin. HB369 establishes a Joint In-State Gasline Development Team to develop a natural gas pipeline plan with the ambition of opening the pipeline in 2015.
Unfortunately, the Legislature also approved HJR45 to oppose federal Cap and Trade legislation and deny the validity of the science supporting global climate change, and HJR49, disapproving of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) climate regulations.
Elections: In response to Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission (FEC) decision, which gave corporations the same First Amendment rights as citizens in advocating for politicians, Alaskan progressives such as Rep. Les Gara, advanced SB284, which requires corporations and unions to report campaign contribution expenditures and provide disclaimers in political ads identifying the organization funding the effort. HB36 requires entities that provide large contributions in support of a ballot initiative to disclose their identity. The bill also provides that the lieutenant governor hold at least two public hearings on ballot measures in each judicial district in the state at least 30 days before an election.
Finally, the Legislature moved HJR38/SJR21, which proposes a constitutional amendment to increase the size of both chambers by 10 percent. Alaskans will have the opportunity to vote on the measure this fall.
Education: Alaska has the worst higher education need-based aid program in the entire country. SB174, which will expand a merit based scholarship program, intends to provide increased support for students entering college. Rep. Gara unsuccessfully attempted to add $3 billion to the bill for low-income students entering college. SB237 addresses educational inequities by dedicating funding for rural school construction.
Protecting Children: Rep. Gara garnered bipartisan support for HB126 to extend foster care to the age of 21 and allow youth who leave the system early the ability to re-enter if they become homeless or experience other adverse circumstances. Amanda Metivier, founder of Facing Foster Care in Alaska stated, "HB 126 allows for youth in care to become young adults with a support system in place." This was combined with a package of budget measures aimed at ensuring educational and job success by foster youth through job training, college scholarships, transitional housing assistance and recruiting more foster parents.
Domestic Violence Prevention: As part of Gov. Parnell's aim to end "the epidemic of sexual assault and domestic violence within a decade," lawmakers approved $75.8 million for the construction of a state-of-the-art crime lab.
Asserting "States Rights": The legislature also approved HCR10 opposing federal laws regulating navigable water and submerged land in the state.
Notable Initiatives That Did Not Pass:
- Fuel Price Gouging: Alaskan consumers confront the highest gasoline and diesel prices in the nation, though the state is the second largest crude oil producer in the country. In light of this dichotomy, Rep. Petersen introduced HB68, which included protections for consumers and prohibited refineries from charging excessive prices for gasoline, diesel, and heating oil, but the bill failed to pass.
- Coastal Management: SB4/HB74 would have given local communities greater voice in coastal development projects.
- Paid Sick Days: Lawmakers successfully moved paid sick days legislation out of committee last year, but SB86 did not gain sufficient support this session.
- Cell Phone While Driving Ban: HB257 would have prohibited cell phone use while operating a motor vehicle.
- Funding for School Lunches: SB213 intended to appropriate state funds to supplement the cost of lunch and breakfast for students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.
Alaska Dispatch - Alaska's Capital Budget Tops $3 Billion
Alaska Dispatch - Legislative Session was Fruitful, Friendly, and Just a Tad Too Long
Alaska House Democrats - America's Most Expensive Gas
The Anchorage Daily News - Analysis: Session Winners and Losers
Fairbanks Daily News-Miner - No Shortage of Winners and Losers in Alaska Legislative Session