Busy legislative session reaches halfway point

Begun Jan. 15, this year’s legislative session is halfway toward its April 14 adjournment. Representing areas of the Kenai Peninsula that include the southern and portions of the central peninsula, Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, and Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, took time to reflect on the session’s progress and what lies ahead.
“It’s been very busy. I’ve learned I will never serve on eight committees again,” said Micciche, the former Soldotna mayor who is serving his first term in the Legislature.
Micciche chairs the Senate Community and Regional Affairs Committee, is vice chair of the Senate’s Health and Social Services Committee, Labor and Commerce Committee and Legislative Council, co-chair of the Senate Special Committee on TAPS Throughput; is a member of the Senate Special Committee on In-State Energy, the Resources Committee and the World Trade Committee, and a member of the Senate Finance sub-committees on natural resources, transportation and public facilities, and military and veterans’ affairs.
“It’s 7 a.m. until 9 or 10 p.m. every day,” Micciche said. “It’s fascinating. I’m learning a lot of things.”
One recent highlight of his time in Juneau was meeting Vic Fischer, one of the framers of Alaska’s constitution, a former senator and the author of “To Russia With Love, an Alaskan’s Journey.” (See related column, page 7.)
“I made an appointment with him and wanted to really pay my respects, but ended up having a great history lesson for about 30 minutes,” said Micciche.
In his constituent newsletter, Seaton also mentioned visiting with Fischer, saying that it’s rare to meet a living writer of a state constitution.
One area where Fischer’s perspective got attention was in his testimony on House Joint Resolution 1, a proposal to amend the Alaska Constitution to allow state aid through vouchers to private and religious schools.
“I agree with Vic Fischer that there is a high burden on those who would propose an Alaska Constitution amendment to demonstrate its necessity,” Seaton wrote in his newsletter.
Seaton said he also has questions about where money would come from to support nonpublic schools and what standards would be applied to those schools. Would there be an equal protection issue if one set of standards applied to nonpublic schools receiving funding and another set of standards applied to public schools? Seaton asked. He also questioned the need for more options.
“I’m thinking we’ve got a lot of choices,” he said, mentioning programs like Homer Flex School, charter schools and homeschooling programs. “We’ve got a lot of different public school options.”
The impacts of this year’s freshman legislators has been noted, according to Micciche.
“One thing that’s been apparent to everyone in the building is that they don’t remember hitting it so early down here,” he said. “There are enough new members that really wanted to get down here and get to work that I think we’ve redefined the early pace, which I hope leads to more forethought in the session to the bigger ticket items like oil taxes and gas line and budget and education and school issues.”
Micciche said he is aware that Alaska is facing “some serious energy issues.” With that in mind, he is keeping an eye on House Bill 35, sponsored by Tammi Wilson, R-North Pole. The bill provides an opportunity for a maximum one-time loan of $15,000 to improve or replace home heating systems. The loan would be repaid over a 10-year period at 1 percent.
“What I’ve realized is that you’re not sure what form the bill will arrive in by the time we get to act on it, so I certainly hope it’s close to where it is right now and that I can support it when it gets (to the Senate),” said Micciche. “If things go awry with it along the path, I’m willing to make sure it meets its original intent and help Alaskans convert to a lower-cost heating system.”
A bill changing the way the state regulates cruise ship wastewater has passed both Senate and House. The bill was sponsored by the governor and removes the requirement that cruise ship wastewater discharges meet state water quality standards at the point of discharge. It also allows mixing zones where the wastewater can be diluted into the water if ships meet certain discharge-treatment standards. Seaton voted against the bill, while Micciche voted for it.
Seaton said he had concerns about the bill because of its allowance for mixing zones. Not being able to take samples from the discharge point makes it difficult to measure amounts, Seaton said.
“They’re mobile mixing zones. You have one mixing zone on top of another mixing zone,” he said. “If you have water quality errors, you have no way to know where it’s coming from.”
Micciche said he was aware of the struggles Seaton faced on the House side with the bill.
“After watching the pace of the bill and seeing the difficulties Rep. Seaton had, I began working with the administration and (the Department of Environmental Conservation), as well as the cruise ship industry and reached an agreement that there will not be discharges in critical habitat areas,” said Micciche of efforts to protect areas including Kachemak Bay. “It’s not in the bill. It’s being done through the permitting process with DEC, the industry and the administration.”
Like Micciche, Seaton said he had concerns about discharges into critical habitat zones.
“I also wanted to make sure the Department of Environmental Conservation didn’t have authority to give discharge permits in critical habitat areas,” Seaton said. “To me, we’ve passed laws creating those special areas. We should preserve their character in law instead of giving the department the ability to change them.”
As a practical matter, cruise ships visiting Kachemak Bay would be unlikely to discharge in the bay, Seaton noted. Cruise ships can discharge in federal waters 3 miles off shore.
Seaton said he tried to make amendments to HB 80 addressing his concerns.
“The amendments didn’t pass,” he said. “I voted against the bill without amendments.”
Working on the legislation increased Micciche’s awareness of discharge issues facing the state’s municipalities. He noted Anchorage only does primary treatment, even though it discharges the equivalent of 60 cruise ships a day.
“My goal is when I get home for the interim, to put a team together of concerned scientists and stakeholders that want to help me evaluate municipal discharges,” said Micciche.
Three priorities set by the Senate –responsible capital and operating budgets, making decisions on what’s going to happen to oil taxes and getting lower-cost energy to Alaskans — are guiding the budget processes, said Micciche.
“We’re still working to see what the operating budget will be. The capital budget is much lower than last year’s and we’ve not been given a final number of what we can spend per district,” said Micciche. “What we’ve done is split out projects on critical infrastructure, primary needs in various communities and, then, discretionary.”
Southern peninsula projects that have been brought to the senator’s attention include:
* Bridge replacement for Ninilchik village;
* City of Homer harbor improvements;
* East End Road rehabilitation between mileposts 3.7 and 12.2;
* Lake Street upgrade;
* Stabilization of the Sterling Highway between mileposts 150 and 157;
* A turf field project for Homer High School;
* Sewer replacement for the Anchor Point Fire and Emergency Medical Service Area;
* Partial funding for converting South Peninsula Hospital to natural gas;
* Partial funding for a replacement generator on the south side of Kachemak Bay
“Keep in mind, those are going through the process, but we’re hoping they’ll survive,” said Micciche, adding, “We hope people in the district recognize we’re trying to be leaders in the state for spending responsibly. … We want to convince the other 19 Senate districts that they need to follow our lead and bring spending down to a responsible level and make sure we’re creating a sustainable environment for our kids and grandkids.”
Seaton has introduced several bills of local or personal concern:
* HB 75, repealing the audit requirement for organizations participating in Pick.Click.Give;
* HB 109, naming Sterling Highway bridge no. 670 over the Kasilof River the Michael G. Wiley Bridge in honor of Wiley, who recently died and was a Kenai Peninsula Borough assembly member, borough school board member and Homer Electric Association board member;
* HB 131, which would assist the state and municipalities in dealing with derelict vessels; and
* HB 99, which would allow blood samples to be taken from newborn babies to test for vitamin D levels.
Micciche can be contacted at Senator.peter.micciche@akleg.gov or by calling (800) 964-5733. Seaton can be reached at Rep.Paul.Seaton@akleg.gov or by calling (800) 665-2689 or 235-2921. The local number transfers to Seaton’s Juneau office. Constituents also can subscribe to email newsletters from Micciche and Seaton by sending them email.
McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky@homernews.com