Legislative leader touts consensus approach and outlines likely priorities for Alaska Senate

Incoming leader and whip for Alaska’s bipartisan caucus issue warnings about budget woes and Permanent Fund investment losses

By: - January 6, 2023 4:00 am
Sen. Gary Stevens of Kodiak speaks at an Anchorage news conference on Friday announcing the formation of a 17-member bipartisan majority caucus. Stevens, a Republican, will be president of the body and Republican Cathy Giessel, sitting next to him, will be majority leader. Giessel, of Anchorage, represented her Anchorage district in the past but was defeated by a more hard-line Republican in the 2020 primary, Under the ranked-choice voting system, she was returned to the seat this year. The caucus will have nine Democrats and eight Republicans, including Stevens and Giessel. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

Incoming Senate Majority Leader Cathy Giessel listens as incoming Senate President Gary Stevens speaks at a Nov. 25 Anchorage news conference announcing the formation of a 17-member bipartisan majority caucus. Giessel, an Anchorage Republican, discussed the benefits of bipartisanship and outlined some likely Senate priorities for 2023 in an address Thursday to the Resource Development Council for Alaska. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

As the Alaska Legislature’s 2023 session approaches, a state Senate leader on Thursday highlighted the potential benefits of that body’s newly formed bipartisan majority coalition.

Incoming Senate Majority Leader Cathy Giessel said the nine Democrats and eight Republican in the coalition have shared values.

“This coalition formed with a goal, and that is working together to keep Alaska a producing state – not a consuming state, but a producing state,” the Anchorage Republican told the Resource Development Council for Alaska at a breakfast forum.

The across-the-aisle collaboration contrasts with hostility that has stymied progress within Alaska and elsewhere, said Giessel, who mentioned the ongoing stalemate in the U.S. House, in which no speaker had been selected as of Thursday. “We see a lot of political division right now, not just in Alaska but nationally, right?”

The 17-member Senate majority that was announced on Nov. 25 makes official what had been an informal working coalition in recent legislative sessions that enabled practical legislation and budget decisions, Giessel said. “This coalition that you see, 17 members, bipartisan, is actually an acknowledgement of what’s been going on for the last four years in the Alaska Senate,” she said.

It also reflects the will of the Alaska public. “The prevailing message that I hear from other folks in our coalition that they heard from Alaskans was, ‘We’re tired of the fighting. We want you to get along and get something done,'” she said.

One is education, which “is going to be a key issue,” she said.

School districts are stressed with funding and inflation problems that must be addressed through the budget, she said. But there are deep problems beyond that, she said. The experience with COVID-19 isolated children and caused educational setbacks, even for straight-A students, she said. 

“The pandemic was devastating for our kids,” she said. 

The health and economic impacts took tolls on students’ mental and behavioral health, too, she said. 

“Our kids are living with worries, anxiety, bringing depression that you and I never had to deal with,” she said.

Another priority will likely be recruitment and retention of qualified teachers, Giessel said. She noted that Alaska teachers are not entitled to Social Security retirement benefits, which the Senate coalition might address. “It’s quite likely that we’re going to be looking at some kind of a pension retirement-type program,” she said.

More broadly, workforce development is a priority for the coalition, both in the private and public sectors, Giessel said.

In the public sector, there are possibly three departments in state government “that are on the verge of being nonfunctional because so many state employees have left service to the state.” That means “profound” delays in services like permitting and licensing, she said.

In both the private and public sectors, there is a need to ensure that workers have access to childcare, she said. “How do you solve that problem? This is a very low-compensated job that is critically important to businesses, to your employees.” she said.

On energy, priorities are likely to concern lowering costs to Alaskans – seen as necessary to helping to diversify the economy – and addressing potential Southcentral natural gas shortages. Coalition members are also interested in developing renewable and alternative energy, including potential for hydrogen and more hydroelectric power.

Food security is a broad issue of concern to the coalition, Giessel said. There might be some action to enhance the state’s agricultural opportunities, she said. And coalition members hope to respond to dire problems in fisheries and the decline in caribou numbers, problems that are connected in part to climate change. That points to budgeting issues, she said. “Fish and Game, as a department, needs to have the funding it needs to do the science it needs to help it manage our resources,” she said.

Those and other priorities depend on budgeting, which will be extra challenging in the coming session, Giessel and Sen. Click Bishop, the incoming majority whip, told the RDC audience.

Coalition members will get more detail on budget problems at their pre-session retreat, which was to start later Thursday, said Bishop, a Fairbanks Republican.

The problems are dire, he said. “I do know that we’re upside-down on our revenue by over $1 billion from the spring to the fall forecast,” he said.

Falling oil prices have dampened expectations for oil revenues to the state. And the outlook is diminished for investment earnings from the Alaska Permanent Fund, which has become the top source of revenue for the state. Investment losses have taken a big toll on the fund, which has declined by about $6.5 billion in value since mid-2021.

Neither Giessel nor Bishop presented themselves as fans of big Alaska Permanent Fund dividends.

Giessel said the huge dividends that some Alaskans are demanding are unaffordable. “We’ve got to bring that dividend subject under control,” she said. “We need to protect the fund itself.”

Bishop said much of the $17 billion that has gone “out the door” in dividends since 2002 could have been better used, as infrastructure investment that would have helped build the state’s economy, for example. During the past decade, he noted, the state’s gross domestic product has declined and Alaska has had net outmigration.

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Yereth Rosen
Yereth Rosen

Yereth Rosen came to Alaska in 1987 to work for the Anchorage Times. She has been reporting on Alaska news ever since, covering stories ranging from oil spills to sled-dog races. She has reported for Reuters, for the Alaska Dispatch News, for Arctic Today and for other organizations. She covers environmental issues, energy, climate change, natural resources, economic and business news, health, science and Arctic concerns -- subjects with a lot of overlap. In her free time, she likes to ski and watch her son's hockey games.

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