April 15, 2024

 

Dear Friends and Neighbors:


After roughly 24 hours of debate and consideration of 137 amendments, the House passed the operating and mental budgets last week. Leading up to passing the budget on the House Floor there were weeks of subcommittee hearings, where each agency’s budget was scrutinized, amended, and then passed to the Finance Committee for consideration.

 

As a reminder, my subcommittees were the Departments of Public Safety, Corrections, Education and Early Development, and Fish and Game. In the Finance Committee each agency’s budget is again considered and amended prior to sending the budget to the floor. Through the process, it became clear that the only way to successfully amend the budget was by compromising with House colleagues. Successful amendments were made to the budget when there was agreement between Democrats, Republicans, and Independents, both in the majority and minority, and representing urban and rural districts. 

 

At the same time the House was working on the operating and mental health budgets, the Senate was working on the capital budget. Now there will be an abbreviated process in the House Finance Committee to consider capital budget while the Senate considers the operating and mental health budgets. Before the end of session, the House will consider the capital budget on the floor. Ultimately, there will be compromises between the House and the Senate to arrive at the final operating, capital and mental health budgets. There are many, many moving parts.

 

In addition to the budget work, we will continue to work on policy bills and consider appointees to boards and commissions. This issue of the Swell is dedicated to the operating budget – it’s important to remember this is an on-going process!



If there is a bill or budget item you would like to share your position on, a district issue you would like to bring to my attention, or if you will be in Juneau, please contact my office by phone (907.465.3732) or email (rep.himschoot@akleg.gov).  To learn more about what is going on in Juneau, you, your friends, and neighbors can subscribe to Southeast Swell by emailing rep.himschoot@akleg.gov or by signing up on this website.

The budget amendments debate on the floor was respectful and civil – Alaskans can be proud of the work the legislature is doing on the budgets. 

Legislative Update

Operating Budget

 

As I mentioned in the introduction, we considered amendments to the operating budget on the House Floor this week before voting on the budget. In addition to considering the operating budget, the House also considered the mental health budget last week. This budget is where the State appropriates funds for capital and operating expenses relating to the State’s integrated comprehensive mental health program. 


I attempted to amend the mental health budget to increase funding for the Infant Learning Program so that the program can serve more children who are struggling to learn at an early age. The importance of this program and the need for additional funding was brought to my attention by a constituent who lives on Prince of Wales. Unfortunately, the amendment did not pass.


Some amendments that I supported that passed, include:

 

  • Representative Armstrong’s amendment to increase funding for school meals provided to students from low-income families.


  • Representative Story’s amendment to increase funding for K-3 students by $9 million to help with reading programs.


  • Representative Ortiz’s amendment to increase funding to Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute and the Alaska Travel Industry Association by $5 million each. 

 

Ultimately, I could not support the budget. I am concerned that along with the capital budget and increases in required spending from bills that pass this year, it will not be a balanced budget. 


I will continue to monitor the operating and mental health budget process in the Senate and watch the work of the House Finance Committee on the capital budget. 

 

Bills and Resolutions that Passed the House Last Week


HCR 13, “Recognizing and commending the National Conference of State Legislatures on its 50th anniversary in 2025.”

 

HB 268, "An Act making appropriations for the operating and loan program expenses of state government and for certain programs; capitalizing funds; amending appropriations; making supplemental appropriations and reappropriations; and providing for an effective date."

 

HB 270, "An Act making appropriations for the operating and capital expenses of the state's integrated comprehensive mental health program; and providing for an effective date."

 

SB 45, "An Act relating to insurance; relating to direct health care agreements; relating to the duties of the director of the division of insurance in the Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development; and providing for an effective date."

Correspondence Programs

Late Friday afternoon the courts handed down a ruling that not only ended the practice of providing public funds as “allotments” to correspondence (also called “home school”) students it also ended the requirement that correspondence students have individual learning plans. While the court struck down these two sections of statute relating to correspondence schools, it is my understanding that correspondence programs can continue. This is a fast-moving situation, and the hope is a stay will soon be issued by the court to allow home school programs to operate until at least the end of this school year. The court has made clear it is the job of the Legislature to establish new laws addressing home schooling, which could be a challenge in the short time left in this session.

 

To be clear, Alaska’s correspondence school laws from statehood until 2013 supported home school families; these programs have been an important part of Alaska’s public education ecosystem for decades. When “allotments” were added to statute in 2014 by then-Senator Dunleavy it allowed up to $4,500 of public funds to go to home school students to support their Individual Learning Plans. The court has ruled Alaska’s Constitution prohibits public funds from being used to benefit private or religious institutions. Some students were using their allotments to attend private schools and instead of trying to limit the allotment program to appropriate expenses, the judge eliminated the program. The full section of the Constitution is below for reference.


Article VII, Section 1, Public Education:


"The legislature shall by general law establish and maintain a system of public schools open to all children of the State, and may provide for other public educational institutions. Schools and institutions so established shall be free from sectarian control. No money shall be paid from public funds for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution."

 

This situation is predicted to evolve quickly and is highly consequential for the more than 20,000 Alaskan students who are in home school programs. Some of these students may choose to continue home schooling without the allotments, they may choose a national home school program, they may return to brick and mortar schools, and some may choose to leave Alaska.


Equally challenging is the draining of educators from brick and mortar schools in the face of the state’s failure to adequately fund our districts. With this court decision, enrollment is likely to go up in August, but districts are putting together their budgets now and many are forced to lay off teachers to balance their budgets. Unfortunately, this means there will be fewer teachers to handle the increase in enrollment next school year – effectively, this ruling adds a crisis to a crisis. While I agree our Constitution is clear that public funds may not go to private or religious schools, I also value Alaska’s home school programs and urgently await a solution to this newest dilemma in our public school system.

 

What You Can Do

Attend a Community Workshop on the Tongass National Forest Land Management Plan Revision 

  • The Forest Service is Revising the Tongass National Forest Land Management Plan. They want to hear from you and will be hosting meetings throughout Southeast Alaska. You can find out more about the revision process online and see the list of community workshops below.

Community Workshops in Southeast

Watch a Short Video on the Exciting Opportunities in Angoon

  • Watch "Angoon Youth on the Cusp of the Energy Transition" on you tube. This video was shared with me over the weekend and is one more example of the great work happening in schools and communities across HD 2. Congratulations to Angoon on finally receiving the funds to bring hydropower to their community!


Fill out Your FAFSA!

  • The Alaska Commission on Postsecondary Education (ACPE) provides education and career funding solutions. Currently leading the Alaska FAFSA Completion Initiative, ACPE offers a variety of resources to support and increase FAFSA completion. Historically, Alaska ranks last or next to last in national FAFSA completion rates, resulting in our students losing out on millions of dollars in financial aid opportunities each year. In collaboration with education stakeholders across the State, ACPE is working to change that! Visit acpe.alaska.gov/FAFSACompletionInitiative to learn more.


Share how you would Balance the State of Alaska Budget

  • Commonwealth North invites you to go to www.akbudget.com and suggest how the state should balance the budget. Your individual suggestions will be confidential, but the full results will be shared with the legislature. Commonwealth North was founded in 1979 by Governors Bill Egan and Walter Hickel. Commonwealth North’s mission is to educate Alaskans on significant public policy issues and assist in identifying effective solutions.  


 Follow the Legislature and Comment


  • If there is a bill or resolution you want to follow, you can get an email update every time action is taken on the legislation with the Bill Tracking Management Facility.