Stimulus dollars dominate Town Hall meeting

Resource type: News

Alaska Star |

By DARRELL L. BREESE

Ready to answer questions about the state budget, the gas pipeline, the requirement of parental consent for abortions and the elimination of daylight savings time, members of the local legislative delegation gathered for a town hall meeting Saturday.

While those topics were touched on during the two-hour gathering in Eagle River, talk of what to do with federal stimulus funds dominated the meeting.

Some residents said the entire package should be rejected, while others wanted the Legislature to take a careful look at it, accepting only the funds that covered capital projects and would put people to work.

Then the conversation shifted to the portion of the stimulus funds that Gov. Sarah Palin decided not to accept March 19 for education programs because of the potential long-term impact on the state budget.

“I’d hate to see Alaska reject federal resources that could be used to help kids,” said Tom Morgan, director of Communities in Schools of Alaska. “I encourage you and the rest of the Legislature to take a careful look at the federal stimulus funds and accept the funds that will help keep kids in school and help them graduate.”

Jeff Freedman, a member of the Anchorage School Board, attended the meeting to encourage the legislators to examine the stimulus dollars despite the governor’s objections to accepting those dedicated to education.

“If this money can help our schools today, it should be looked at carefully before turning it down,” he said. “The students in our schools deserve that at a minimum.”

However, not everyone agreed.

“I know there are some out here, myself included, that don’t want anything to do with this so-called stimulus package,” said Frank Yarbrough. “I calculated the impact this stimulus would have on my taxes, and if I’m correct my tax bill will triple over the next 10 years just to pay for this stimulus.”

After listening to comments from attendees, Rep. Anna Fairclough addressed the gathering:

“One thing we have to remember is that the stimulus plan is a reality,” she said. “Even if we turn down all or part of the stimulus, we’re still going to have to pay for it and other states will spend the money originally intended for Alaska.”

She went on to say the Legislature would “judicially examine the entire stimulus and determine what is best for Alaska in the long-term.”

Having tackled the “800-pound gorilla,” as Sen. Fred Dyson called it during the discussion, the meeting moved to other topics.

Jean Woods asked about the suspension of the gasoline tax implemented last year.

“Our roads are in disrepair, especially the Glenn Highway with all the ruts,” she said. “Isn’t the 8 cents gas tax supposed to pay for maintaining the roads? How can the state do this without the money from that tax?”

Rep. Bill Stoltze replied that he agreed.

“I think in the context of when the tax was suspended, it was an appropriate course of action,” he said. “But we’re not at $144 barrel oil today and we are no longer looking at ways to provide some temporary energy relief. I believe we will see the tax quietly seep back into being charged again to fund the life and safety issues on our roads.”

Crystal Kennedy, a member of the Anchorage School Board, discussed the importance of passing House Bill 35, a change in the parental consent requirements for abortions.

“I’m not speaking as a member of the school board, but as a mother,” she said before addressing the legislation. “This bill is not about abortion, but it is about parental rights and providing support to pregnant teens. I fear that without the changes proposed by this bill we are setting things up so a teenager can get an abortion without consulting with an adult or addressing the issues that might be involved with a teen pregnancy.”

Rep. Nancy Dahlstrom echoed Kennedy’s comments.

“This legislation had been before the Judicial Committee, which I’m the vice-chair of,” she said. “I believe this bill is about parents knowing what their teens are doing and not about abortion. In Alaska parents are responsible in criminal cases committed by their children, as they should be, and the same should be true for invasive medical procedures.”

Lynn Willis asked about the gas line and the future of natural gas exploration.

“Enstar seems to have less and less gas available, no matter how much more we pay them,” Willis said. “What is being done to develop a gas and energy plan for Cook Inlet and the rest of Southcentral Alaska?”

Dyson responded that the gas situation is not as gloomy as some may think.

“This is something that I’ve been paying a lot of attention to,” he said. “He’s (Willis) right that we have a fairly good supply of gas in Cook Inlet, the problem is the demand in the cold winter months has greatly increased.”

Dyson said the answer to a possible gas shortage is exploration.

“The problem with that is the economics are not there that the industry would be willing to spend the money to bring a jack-up rig into the inlet and do exploration,” he said. “The increase in population is not enough, without an increase in industrial demand for gas, it doesn’t make sense for there to be exploration.”

Other residents spoke in support of a legislative pay raise, funding of the public employees retirement program, increasing funds for the university system and forward funding the public education system.

The meeting ended with a discussion of the Permanent Fund Dividend.

“Before you leave, I want to know what’s going on with the PFD,” Yarbrough said. “Is there going to be a check this year? I ask because I thought we weren’t supposed to draw from the principle.”

“That issue has been a topic of much discussion during the session,” Stoltze said. “We have two different legal opinions that say we can and cannot tap into the principle to payout the PFD. We’re still struggling to find out which one is correct.”

Yarbrough said he had an easier solution.

“Maybe we cut off the PFD,” he said, adding it would set a bad precedent to tap the principle.

Dyson said the funds may be there for this year’s PFD, but future checks are uncertain.

“If we don’t get a gas pipeline, offshore exploration and continued development in an environmentally friendly way, the alternatives will be painful,” he said. “We’ll be facing income tax, sales tax and the real possibility of the Legislature tapping into more than just the earnings of the PFD.”

Members of the local delegation returned to Juneau for the remainder of the legislative session, which is set to end April 19.

This article published in The Alaska Star on Thursday, March 26, 2009.

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