Education was the big story during the tumultuous third week of the legislative session
JUNEAU – Week three of the 2014 session came in like a lion, and the lamb is still in hiding. I don’t think we’ll see it any time soon.
The Alaska Constitution: “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.”
Education generated a lot of sound and fury this past week, starting last Monday night with a four-hour public hearing in the Senate Finance Committee on Senate Joint Resolution 9, the measure that would put a constitutional amendment on the ballot to allow the state to spend money on private and religious schools.
Testimony on SJR 9
About 90 people testified. Less than 10 supported it. Democrats called out Sen. Pete Kelly for repeatedly asking opponents of the measure if they belong to the National Education Association. They said, as teachers, educators and parents, they had every right to weigh in on a measure that could undermine public education in an Alaska, especially on an issue in which they have expertise to share.
One of the prime sponsors of the bill, Sen. Mike Dunleavy of Wasilla, said he understands why Kelly asked opponents about NEA membership: Because the association is highly organized, he said it was important to find out if the testimony truly represents everyday Alaskans.
The senator, as a former teacher, was once a member of the NEA.
Dunleavy said based on letters and emails to his office, as well as a Dittman Research poll, he believes there’s overwhelming support for the amendment.
Senate Democrats responded by saying they’ve been flooded with emails opposing the constitutional amendment. They set up their own web page to show how widespread the opposition is.
Gov. Parnell is happy with progress on education legislation
Gov. Sean Parnell weighed in midweek at a news conference, armed with a poster-sized checklist of education reforms — his big picture view of where things need to go from here.
He told reporters he wasn’t at all discouraged by the overwhelming opposition shown thus far to the constitutional amendment, which he called on lawmakers to support during his State of the State speech in which he dubbed 2014 the “Education Session.”
The governor said he felt he had accomplished one of his main goals — to spark an important dialogue on education, where the discussion goes beyond funding and looks at how the state’s entire educational system can be improved.
Educators said it’s hard to have that discussion until basic needs are met. So far the governor has only proposed a slight increase in the Base Student Allocation (BSA), the money the state spends per student, an amount school districts said will not avert massive teacher layoffs.
Another education battle, bubbling in the backdrop, moved to the front burner on Friday.
Yes, this is an election year…
Bill Walker, who’s running as an independent candidate for governor, blasted Parnell for his remarks on KRBD radio in Ketchikan in which he appeared to hint that the Ketchikan Gateway Borough’s lawsuit against the state could affect funding of the community’s capital projects.
“Parnell has chosen the wrong time, the wrong issue, and the wrong people to show himself as a bulldog,” Walker said in a press release.
Being called a “bulldog” is probably an upgrade for Parnell after he was dubbed “Captain Zero” by Congressman Don Young. But Walker’s attack created a buzz in the Capitol Friday, with many lawmakers and their staffers — Democrats and Republicans alike — busily downloading the KRBD interview. They said they had to hear it for themselves, because it’s not like the governor to threaten anyone. But they said that if he did, it’s inappropriate.
Rep. Tammy Wilson, a Republican who represents North Pole and Fairbanks, said she immediately asked for a meeting with the governor’s staff to find out if her district would suffer repercussions. Wilson was assured her district would not — and was told the governor’s remarks had been distorted.
Wilson is pushing a bill which takes up the cause of the Ketchikan lawsuit. House Bill 245 would no longer require urban communities and boroughs to fund schools, which they do now through property taxes.
The Alaska Constitution: “The legislature shall by general law establish and maintain a system of public schools open to all children of the State…”
The Ketchikan lawsuit argues the state is constitutionally mandated to provide for education, regardless of whether students live in a large municipality or a borough.
The governor’s spokesman said Parnell’s remarks about Ketchikan were misinterpreted — that he was talking about the overall political climate and how lawmakers might consider the impact of the lawsuit with the potential to drive up costs for the state.
You can decide for yourself if the governor was issuing a threat or simply a warning about what he called the “unintended consequences” of Ketchikan’s lawsuit.
SJR 9 and HB 1 move forward
Legislatively, the governor and supporters of the school choice/school voucher amendment had a good week: Both SJR 9 and its companion bill, House Bill 1, advanced.
SJR 9 cleared the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday. The next stop? The Senate Rules Committee.
On Friday, HB 1 moved out of the House Education Committee and now goes to the House Judiciary Committee.
Speculation on a two-thirds majority
So is this amendment’s speedy progress through various committees a sign that the required two-thirds majority vote in each house is close at hand?
It should be noted that the path is not completely smooth.
Though the measure was moved out of the Senate Finance Committee, three senators — Donny Olson, Click Bishop and Lyman Hoffman — made no recommendation on the measure. The could have joined their colleagues on the committee in recommending SJR 9.
In the House Education Committee, the vote was 4-3 to move the measure out of committee, with two Republicans joining a Democrat in opposition. The Republicans, Peggy Wilson of Wrangell and Paul Seaton of Homer, said their constituents were against changing the constitution.
Flint Hills shocker
On Tuesday, lawmakers said they were “shocked, stunned and devastated” by the news the Flint Hills refinery in North Pole was shutting down.
Rep. Doug Isaacson of North Pole talked about the ripple effects for the whole state, and how the loss of the refinery will affect the Port of Anchorage, Ted Stevens International Airport and the Alaska Railroad, not to mention all the jobs that will be lost at the refinery as well as in other support industries.
The refinery blamed the ongoing costs of cleaning up groundwater contamination caused by a previous owner at the plant.
Interior lawmakers said it was well known that Flint Hills was frustrated in its dealings with the state over the cleanup, but the governor said the reasons for the closure were more complicated.
He said he blamed market conditions and the decline of oil flowing through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline for driving up the cost of delivering fuel to the refinery.
The Alaska LNG Project
The Flint Hills announcement cast a cloud on the rest of the week; a reminder of market uncertainties just as the state ponders pursuing what could be the largest liquefied natural gas project in North America.
As the senior manager, Steve Butt is the face of the Alaska LNG project — a partnership between three oil and gas producers, a pipeline company and the state.
Butt has worked on some of the biggest LNG projects in the world for Exxon, which some lawmakers say is a sign that this project is the “real deal.”
It came as a great relief to lawmakers that Butt doesn’t talk in engineer-speak. His main message: a liquefied natural gas project is much more than a pipeline. It also includes a gas treatment plant to remove impurities at the North Slope and a liquefaction plant at Nikiski, where the gas will be turned into liquid so it can be carried away on tankers to markets in Asia.
Butt also threw out some interesting factoids:
- The project would create 9,000 to 15,000 jobs for design and construction, with 1,000 jobs for operations
- Facilities on the North Slope will be built somewhere else, barged up and then put together like “Legos.”
- This Lego-style construction technology — in which modules are built upside down, flipped and then pieced together — was pioneered in Alaska and refined at Exxon operations in Russia
- The gas treatment facility will weigh 250,000 tons, the equivalent of 140,000 Ford F-150’s.
- To become liquid, the gas must be cooled to minus 260 degrees — an advantage for Alaska because it’s cold here. In the Middle East, it’s more costly to bring the gas down to the desired temperature. But the gas is not far from shore. In Alaska, it has to travel down an 800-mile pipeline, so keeping costs down will be critical to the success of the project.
- Turning the gas into a liquid is not easy. It must be shrunk by a factor of 600. One way to look at it, said Butt, is to think of your own body. If you were shrunk by that amount you would be about the size of your heel, he said.
Another message he drove home: This project is fundamentally different than previous efforts to bring Alaska’s gas to market, because the oil and gas producers are now partners instead of competitors.
Butt said there’s still competition, but it’s moved beyond Alaska’s borders. It’s the other LNG guys we need to worry about.
On the North Slope, the alignment of the state and the big three producers creates a new regulatory structure that makes it possible to share information and resources, which will make LNG production more efficient.
Crystal ball phase
Skeptics point out that things are still in the “crystal ball” phase in which the producers, in the end, could still back out and the state could spend money for a stake in a project that never comes to fruition.
As a state, we’ve been to the altar many times before, only to be jilted. But this time, there’s a dowry involved, maybe as much as an $11 billion stake in a pipeline that will cost between $45 – 60 billion to build.
Still, it’s an interesting vision to gaze upon.