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Rep. Les Gara and Kelly on a hike.A Note from Rep. Les Gara

End of Session, Pre "Unspecial Session" Update - The Good, Bad and Ugly.

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Well, a flurry of bills passed the last 24 hours of the regular legislative session.  I’ll give you the highlights and low lights, and a short preview of special session.

I’m able to write now that my blood pressure is back to normal. What caused the rise? The few legislators who pride themselves on blocking good legislation out of pure partisanship and animosity. Would anyone outside the Legislature (or Congress where the same stuff is done) really make the state a worse place just because you’re trying to block legislation by an “opponent” – or trying to make your opponent’s election chances worse?  It’s a sick part of the legislative process that, I’m happy to say, most legislators don’t tolerate.  But the few that do make life, and the state, worse for the rest of us.

We Need Your Help: Please write the Governor at if you want to help get these things past a Governor’s veto – especially the fishing stream access (HB 144), foster care (SB 82) and texting ban (HB 255) bills we passed.

Another Legislator with Cancer.... And I’ll share some news with you.  I have now become part of the legislature’s “cancer caucus”.  It shouldn’t be a big deal.  But I’ve put off surgery in New York to get through session, and can’t anymore.  Right now I am considering leaving for surgery to miss the first half of Special Session, or the end.  Maybe there are other alternatives – but these seem to be the smartest right now.  So – I hoped I could get through session, and get surgery, and wasn’t too thrilled that the Governor called a Special Session starting tomorrow.  Que sera sera.  All I can say is that this job is sometimes hazardous to your health!

Energy Relief: A series of bills we passed a few years ago is leading to needed Cook Inlet Natural Gas exploration, and studies confirm there is a large amount of recoverable gas in Cook Inlet to tide us over long enough that we can try to put together the big prize – a large diameter pipeline to Valdez or the Lower 48 that gets us cheaper natural gas, and significant revenue from exported gas.  A big pipeline will lead to jobs, and development that experts believe will lead to more oil finds as we look for gas; and make oil in small fields economic to produce when we start producing them for gas.  Despite all the hype, this is the best long term way to reverse the decline in oil production.  Not a sexy sound bite, but a reality we can’t lose track of.  Basically, those laws are kicking in to produce gas storage units (so explorers have a place to sell their gas during the low demand summer months – so they don’t have to shut down their drilling operations).

We also passed more funds for the popular AHFC home energy efficiency upgrade program, so you can make your homes more energy efficient, and save energy and money over the long term.  And we passed funds to help low income Alaskans pay for heat; and for rural Alaskans help pay for their high-cost electricity.  Finally, I co-sponsored tax credits to help Fairbanks and other interior and rural areas, which have high energy costs.  They are aimed at incentivizing local gas exploration for small communities, and at helping Fairbanks put together a plan to truck natural gas from the North Slope to lower their heating and electricity costs.

More Foster Care Reform – Creating Opportunity and Stability for Our Most vulnerable youth: Senator Davis and I worked hard to pass foster care reform legislation – to add to our prior victories.  When my bill got stalled, we began working on Bettye’s bill.  Bettye has been a hero on children’s issues.  We worked very hard to get her bill through the house, and had a series of meetings with the state to make sure we addressed all the points we could in the bill.  It passed with five hours left in session.   It will make it harder for an overwhelmed, short-staffed Office of Children’s Services (OCS) to split up siblings; make it easier for youth in rural communities to be placed with local families so they don’t get sent away to big cities, away from their extended families; and require that OCS keep looking for stable families for older youth, something that it had not done very well in the past.  The current OCS director agrees with all these efforts, and we want to make sure these efforts continue into the future no matter who the next director is.

Our office also inserted needed budget items to expand job training and dorm space compensation for youth coming out of care; and funds to expand a media campaign to recruit more foster parents for youth in a system that faces a great shortage of great foster parents.  We have lots but need way more.

Texting and Fishing Stream Access:  It seems like months ago that we passed our bill to enhance Alaska’s efforts at maintaining and protecting Alaskans’ public access to our fishing streams.  That was HB 144.  Under a little known rule, the Speaker doesn’t have to transmit bills to the Governor, even if they pass.  If that happens, the bill does not become law.  After lots of time passed we wondered, spoke to the Speaker, and he promised he’d transmit the bill. That occurred last week.  Rumors he was aiming to block that bill proved false.  Phew.

And our bill to make it illegal to type (whether a text, facebook message, or other message); or read messages while your car is moving passed.  There was opposition to efforts to limit cell phone use while driving – but we at least fixed the texting law, which a few judges said was written unclearly.  Studies show you go the length of a football field typing an average text, making your car a weapon.  They show it is more dangerous than drunk driving while you are texting or reading a text.  Texting makes crashes or near-collisions 20 times more likely than when you don’t text.  It is more dangerous than talking on your cell phone, and I’m glad this bill, which I sponsored with Rep. Bill Thomas, the late Carl Gatto, Chris Tuck, Max Gruenberg and Peggy Wilson, passed.

College Scholarships:  Alaska no longer ranks 49th in the nation in providing needs based aid to those who cannot afford higher education in Alaska, or vocational education.  Though the Governor originally opposed needs-based aid, we were able to rewrite his “merit” aid bill so now both will be provided to Alaska students.  I also worked to fix part of the flaw in the Governor’s merit bill.  Many rural schools don’t offer the courses one needs to take to qualify for the Governor’s merit aid proposal.  In conference committee this week I spoke to members, and we added a provision that allows students 24 months to take those courses, either in college or in high school.  While the law requires they take four years of math and science, some schools only offer two years of those courses, and a student needs that time to take those courses if they come from a school where those courses aren’t offered.  While some wanted to kill the needs based provision at the end of session, Sen. Lyman Hoffman gets kudos for keeping this mixed bill together, and Alaskan’s will have more opportunity because of it.

Pre-K and Vocational Education:  We worked hard to increase pre-k opportunities because, studies show, low income students who attend pre-k earn more when they graduate, have lower unemployment rates, lower incarceration rates, and go to college in greater numbers.  We’ll keep pushing, because pre-k still isn’t available to most families in Alaska.  But we doubled the minor funds directed at pre-k over last year – a tough fight.  And a bill I worked on with Rep. Chris Tuck (I originally researched it and wrote it; Chris then led on, carried and pushed it with pretty amazing skill over the past four years) – and that Rep. Bill Thomas helped us pass – made it through the legislature this year.  It is bi-partisan, and called “Parents as Teachers”.  For those who oppose classroom pre-k, it trains parents how to maximize the intellectual development of their infants and pre-k aged children at home.

Here’s the bad news.  There were casualties this session – sort of a killing field of bills that were blocked by committee chairs.  Lots of good bills didn’t pass.  House Education Chair Alan Dick chose not to allow a vote on my bill to reduce student loan rates for Alaskans who stay in or return to Alaska.  So Alaskan students will continue to pay loan rates that are two and three times higher than what you can get a used car loan for.  Sen. Bill Wielechowski’s legislation to help provide free breakfasts to hungry students never made it out of committee for a House Floor vote either. 

I would say, however, that there was less of this “bill blocking” behavior than in prior years, and a lot of good bi-partisan work.  On the House side, I thank Republicans like Bill Thomas, Paul Seaton, the late Carl Gatto, Steve Thompson, Bob Lynn, and some others for not engaging in that practice.

That’s a quick summary.  Call us or e-mail if you want to know more. 

Oh – and that Oil and Gas Special Session: And - soon, I’ll write about special session.  In brief, the Governor want’s some version of his $2 billion/year oil tax giveaway – one that allows companies to take those breaks outside to their shareholders and executives, and that doesn’t require additional investment in Alaska beyond what they had planned anyway.  The Governor seems to, just this week, finally be considering the points I and others have made. We’ll see.

Finally, some keep pushing a great sound bite that’s a terrible idea.  An undersized, inefficient, small gasline for in-state use.  Sounds good.  But it’s so small it would: result in the highest natural gas prices in southcentral history; move ahead without any further legislative approval even if that project is even more expensive than we think; and bind you to prices 30% – 100% higher than what you pay now - for possibly 30 years.  Then, if we put together a big gasline, which will produce much cheaper gas, you won’t be able to access it – it’ll go right by your house. Brilliant, huh?

I and others have proposed a better approach.  Let’s keep planning and designing this back-up plan.  But let’s not build it, or bind consumers to the high priced gas, until we find the big line won’t move forward.  If we have enough gas in Cook Inlet to tide us over for another 20 years, as experts and companies predict, we have time to make this decision. More to come on all this. But it doesn’t seem like it’s time to jump off the cliff yet.

As always, call or write if you have any questions.


[signed] Les Gara


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