While vaccination opportunities grow, the legislature is busy dealing with COVID and with budget work:
COVID Disaster Declaration:
I’ve received many questions about how and when the state can extend the COVID disaster declaration, which we need to ensure efficient vaccine distribution and maintain testing of incoming travelers to Alaska. Testing of travelers is particularly important considering disturbing new COVID variants that have appeared in California, Britain, Brazil, and other communities. Some of these variants can re-infect people who were previously infected with COVID, and may be more infectious and more lethal. The House is moving quickly to pass HB 76, which would extend the disaster declaration. The Senate previously deliberated on a COVID disaster extension and chose not to pass it, instead passing a resolution (as did the House) supporting the Governor doing an administrative extension. To many people’s surprise, the Governor did not extend the disaster declaration administratively, so that means we must legislate an extension. In addition to delayed vaccine distribution and inadequate testing of incoming travelers, lack of a disaster declaration means we will lose millions of dollars in federal support for food assistance. In our community, the number of families going hungry has doubled or tripled during the pandemic, based on what we’ve heard from food pantries. I certainly support legislation to extend the disaster declaration and hope we get it across the finish line.
Economic Effects of the Pandemic:
The economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have been highly unequal. Workers in certain industries have suffered far more than others. In some months, all jobs lost have been women’s. These economic effects of the pandemic exacerbate longstanding problems with our economy, including the gender pay gap and lack of affordable child care. We have a responsibility to fight back, and my Labor and Commerce co-chair Rep Ivy Spohnholz and I are introducing legislation to fight back. First, we’re introducing a bill to establish business tax credits for employers who provide child care to their employees. I’m also drafting legislation to improve wages and working conditions of child care workers, which would have the impact of expanding availability of child care.
Legislation to Advance Apprenticeship:
I’m excited to be working with Representative Ken McCarty and my Labor and Commerce co-chair Ivy Spohnholz on legislation to expand Registered Apprenticeship and support school-to-apprenticeship programs. Alaska has some outstanding apprenticeship programs and strong career and technical education programs in high schools. However, we can do more at the state level to support our local school districts and employers who train with apprenticeship. Everyone graduating high school should have great options for college, apprenticeship, and a career. Given flexibility in accreditation, advances in workforce development, and the growth in apprenticeship programs, there is no reason graduating seniors should have to choose between college and going to work. Instead, seniors who go straight to work should be able to earn college credit and apprenticeship credentials while earning a living wage. Strong systems of apprenticeship and post-secondary education can ensure all students have good career options with nationally-recognized post-secondary credentials. Strengthening apprenticeship and school-to-apprenticeship is an important step in improving economic mobility and breaking intergenerational cycles of poverty. I appreciate Reps. McCarty and Spohnholz’s interest in collaborating on this subject.
Here’s how the budget process works: Each Finance member chairs a subcommittee that writes the budget for a state department, and all House members participate in the subcommittee process corresponding to membership in standing committees and their jurisdiction over certain departments (for example, since I’m on Labor and Commerce, I’m on the Finance subcommittee writing the Department of Labor and Workforce Development budget). We are starting Finance subcommittees next week and will complete the first draft of each department’s budget by the third week of March. Then the Finance Committee will aggregate budget components, consider additional budget amendments, and send the completed budget to the House floor. Differences between the House and Senate operating budgets will be addressed in conference committee. In short, we are on track to pass both an operating budget and capital budget on time, and I hope we stick to that timeline.
This year, we are also considering the Governor’s General Obligation Bond (often called “G.O. Bond”) proposal to invest in infrastructure. I support a G.O. Bond bill, and expect that the project mix proposed by the Governor will be considered and potentially changed by legislators. We are way behind in infrastructure investment and out-migration of construction workers seeking employment has played a tragic part in Alaska’s multi-year decline in population. A civilized society maintains its infrastructure, and it is a very economical time to bond given low interest rates. I’m committed to fiscal responsibility and protecting our structured draw within the POMV, but we must find space within that to make necessary investments in infrastructure.