What's new with the new administration, new legislature?

The 31st Alaska State Legislature gaveled in on Jan. 15 with many new faces and a host of old challenges. The Senate quickly elected Sen. Cathy Giessel (R-Anch.) as Senate President, with a 14-6 Republican majority caucus (one Democrat caucuses with the Republicans). On the House side, as of this writing, there is no chosen leadership. Despite having a Republican majority, the House does not follow party lines so clearly. There is a Speaker Pro Tem, Rep. Neal Foster (D-Nome) until the House is able to achieve either a 21-19 majority caucus, or something called a “caucus of the whole” where there is no majority/minority party distinction. What this all means is that the Senate is proceeding with committee assignments and hearings, while the House is not yet in a position to do so. That could change as soon as the House leadership is selected, though that could also still be a while off.

Meanwhile, Alaska also has a new governor and administration. Gov. Dunleavy gave his first State of the State address to the Legislature on Jan. 22, in which he pledged to carry out his campaign promises to focus on crime reduction, balance state spending with revenues, and pay out “full” Permanent Fund dividends. Making good on the campaign promises will test not only the governor and his administration, but also how well the executive branch will work with the legislature. The governor’s pledges were shared by many other candidates, in full or in part, during the last election. It will be an interesting legislative session to watch, and it will be consequential to the future of our state. Perhaps “interesting” is not the best word—maybe it should be “very important to watch.”

Gov. Dunleavy’s budget will not be revealed until Feb. 13, but it is sure to contain substantial cuts to state spending. Of course, the two largest drivers of that spending are education and health services. Gov. Dunleavy appointed Donna Arduin as his Director of the Office of Management and Budget. Having never lived in Alaska, but also having served in this role in several other states, she is recognized as having expertise in cutting public spending in favor of privatizing, outsourcing and encouraging entrepreneurial solutions to state needs.

What this means for older Alaskans will become clearer as the session moves ahead. The budget release on Feb. 13 will be the first view of which programs are deemed unnecessary, duplicative or better provided by the private sector. Issues of affordable and accessible health care, home and community based services and supports, affordable housing, transportation, and caregiving will all be subject to close legislative and administrative scrutiny. It will be critical that Alaskans of all ages pay attention to legislative intentions, and to be prepared to speak up, write or contact their own legislators, and join with others to ensure the decisions made are consistent with the kind of state Alaskans wish to have.

Ken Helander is the Advocacy Director for AARP Alaska.