Chenault, Huggins discuss education, gas line, and fish politics

APRN's Lori Townsend speaks with House Speaker Mike Chenault and Senate President Charlie Huggins. (Photo by Annie Feidt, APRN)

APRN’s Lori Townsend speaks with House Speaker Mike Chenault and Senate President Charlie Huggins. (Photo by Annie Feidt, APRN)

As lawmakers begin the 90 day session, House Speaker Mike Chenault and Senate President Charlie Huggins say there is just one must pass bill this session- the budget. But the majority party has other items on their agenda, along with a commitment to fiscal restraint. I asked Speaker Chenault to outline his priorities.

What are your priorities this session?

Rep. Chenault – Probably the number one priority is to try to look at education and try to come up with a long-term fix that addresses education needs for children across the state. Number two will probably be the governor’s new proposal, which we haven’t necessarily seen yet legislation  in regards to gas pipelines. And, you know, there [are] a number of other issues out there, whether it’s workers’ comp; whether it’s the budget, and the budget will be one of the top three that we deal with; not only the operating budget, but the capital budget.

Senator Huggins, what are your thoughts on the new gas line agreement that the governor has put forward?

Sen. Huggins – I’ve been here since 2003 and the speaker has been here longer than I have, but it’s the closest I think we’ve been to actually having a gas pipeline materialize. So, I’m very optimistic in that respect. There are lots of challenges and I hope Alaskans come forward with their questions so that we can answer those up front. So, I’m comfortable. And for those people that like Norway, this is not unlike because they have a company that’s a government company as part. So we as a state under the concept would be investing; we would be a stakeholder; we would be at the table, which is important for the state because we will have knowledge of the information whether it’s what’s gonna happen on the North Slope; what’s gonna happen in conveying the gas down to the Kenai Peninsula and other places along the way, and, oh by the way, the liquefaction plant, and there won’t be any quote – secrets – from us in the legislature or, most important, the people of Alaska. And, quite frankly, I hope and I’m supporting a technique whereby you and I as individuals – a guy named Charlie Huggins and it doesn’t matter who you work for – that you can raise your hand and say, “I’m checked off my permanent fund dividend, I want it to be invested in that pipeline because I want a long-term revenue source coming to me.”

All of the pre-filed bills this session don’t come with big or really any price tags. Have you told members of your caucus to rein in their desires and their spending and keep tighter a tighter state budget in mind when crafting legislation, Senator Huggins?

Sen. Huggins – I haven’t told them that directly. I mean, these are wise people and I think we all come to,  generally speaking, the same conclusion, but when you work backwards from what the revenue stream is, based on the failure of ACES, then I think we come to the same conclusion. But, we did remind people that when you’re doing a piece of legislation and it has fiscal note that has bearing on the status of the bill can be a good idea, but it may cost too much, so good ideas sometimes are not affordable. So, yeah, we had that conversation, I guess.

Representative Chenault?

Rep. Chenault – We haven’t specifically had that conversation. I think most of my members realize that we are in times of budget constraint. That we want to try to control the budget, but if they feel strong enough that they have a piece of legislation that helps Alaskans and helps move Alaska forward even with a fiscal note to it, they may introduce it and still try to get it through, so it’s up to our process to move bills through and the finance to figure out if we’ve got the money to pay for it and if we don’t have the money to pay for it then that’s another conversation that we’ll have to have. So, I’m a firm believer that we pass as few bills as we can simply because every piece of legislation we pass usually takes a right away from somebody.

Would you be open to an increase in the base student allocation for education? Senator Huggins?

Sen. Huggins – Number one, for myself as an individual, and I say right up front that my wife is a charter school principal, but I was on school board once upon a time, my number one priority approaching things has been education because it’s the future of our country. We’re not doing very well at that. So, am I open to base student allocation? I’m always open to that, but more important, I’m more open to techniques that in fact move the needle of achievement, ever how you do that, and it’s not the technique, it’s about outcome.

So you’re open to the idea of an increase, if necessary?

Sen. Huggins – I’m open to anything that aids in ratcheting up our achievement of our students.

Representative Chenault, what are your thoughts about base student allocation increases?

Rep. Chenault – Well, you know, I think that’s something we need to look at and it’s unfortunate that base student allocation, or BSA, is a real easy term for reporters or other people around the state to use, there’s a lot more that goes into education than just what that dollar amount is in the BSA. There’s currently lots of money that is outside of that BSA that takes pressure off of money going into the classrooms. It’s unfortunate it’s been sold that if there’s not an increase to the BSA then that means you’re taking money out of the classroom, and that’s just simply not true. The education funding is a very complicated formula that gets you to a BSA. We’ve done some things outside the formula that put more money into the school to pay for their costs for fuel and for teacher retirement and for other things. I think that as a legislature, we’re gonna look at a BSA increase, but we’re also looking for results, and I’ve been a strong supporter of education from the cost differential that I championed through here a few years ago to number of other things. So, while I agree that education of our children is one of the most important things that we can do, I don’t agree that the BSA is the only way to fix it. So, hopefully from the task force and from the Senate Finance Committee’s group that they put together, we might get some recommendations back, and we’re also talking to the school districts; what do you need? How can we help you? And I think that there are some ideas out there that will help drive down their costs of insurance, energy, and things like that that are just taking that money right out of the education system. We’re gonna work on that and see what we can do and hopefully we can come up with some agreement that does move the education system forward.

Representative Chenault, you’re from the Kenai Peninsula and Senator Huggins, you’re from Wasilla . Both of your bodies of constituents are very invested in the strength of salmon runs in Southcentral. Do you have plans to delve into fish politics this session?

Rep. Chenault – It’s never been my intention to ever get into fish politics. I come from the lower Mat-Su and Charlie comes from the upper Kenai, and while we may have our differences of opinion, I don’t think that fish politics ever plays well or allocation issues ever play well in the legislature. We have biologists; we have a fish board, and while I may not agree with whatever comes out of these type of meetings, my hope is that they have the biology of the salmon in mind whenever they are making these decisions. It’s unfortunate that we do have these wars. I would love for the folks in the Valley to have all the fish in the world that they wanted, that way the traffic going to Kenai wouldn’t be quite so bad during the summertime. I’ve threatened to meet Representative Stoltze at the border where the gate is to bring his fish to him so that we wouldn’t get any fights down in the Kenai. But, I represent commercial fishermen, sport fishermen, subsistence fishermen and PU fishermen – and I represent them all. And we won’t get anywhere fighting about it. Where we’ll make headway is sitting down and talking about it and figuring out a way to move forward. I have commercial friends, I have sports friends and they both have the same agreement, they would like to catch all the fish that they can, but they also know that there’s a limit to that. They’re willing to work together, but unfortunately it’s the upper-Cook Inlet fish wars and we’ll fight it out. There are other things that are beyond their control. Predation of other species, whether it’s habitat, there are other things we need to try to figure out and address and if there is a problem there then we need to try to fix that. If there’s other issues there, then we need to look at that. So, I’m open to looking at it, but I’m not a biologist – I want those guys to make the decision, and I’m willing to live with their decision, but if you get into an allocation war, then it’s going to be whoever’s got the most power it happens to be that day, and I just don’t think that makes for good legislation. We’re willing to work with everyone on the issue, but I’d sure had to see us get into an allocation battle.

Senator Huggins, are you willing to wade into the fish politics issue?

Sen. Huggins – Well, we have people in Mat-Su, and Mike just described some of that, but what I see is we have to put all the moving parts of fish escapement, return, and everything that falls in between those two. My family is lucky enough to have an airplane – it’s on floats. So we can fly to lakes; we can fly to rivers way across from Wasilla, right across from the Kenai, and if you work back to where I live in Meadow Lakes there’s a consistent trait, the escapement goal has continued to descent, the number of fish that escape continue to descend. Yes, are there more pike? There are more pike, that’s in a few tributaries, so that’s a variable for a few. But, if you start at Tyonek and you work back toward Wasilla, you’ll the Theodore River is closed; Beluga River is closed; Lewis River is closed. That’s closed, this isn’t about can you catch one, it’s closed – you can’t fish. You go to Alexander Creek, which has a pike problem, it’s closed, the others don’t have any pike that I’m aware of. It’s a pain factor. And I’ll sum it up very quickly: There’s something wrong when you can be from Washington State and you can be selling fish and making money and people in Wasilla can’t even go fishing in the streams. But there are a lot of variables in the middle. There aren’t any evil people and the fish are suffering, so I say that whatever we do, we air on the side of the fish. All stakeholders are gonna have to give on this. The Board of Fish, I support them in the allocation business, and I don’t want to see the legislature in the allocation business because I don’t think it works.  We have a mechanism to answer that call. On the other hand, I think that people who live in my neck of the woods should not have to go down to the Kenai River to dip net to put fish in their freezer – there’s something wrong with that. So, long story short, what used to work today appears to not be working. It’s not just Mat-Su, it’s not just Kenai, it’s just not Cook Inlet. Go to the Kuskokwim River and look at kings, go to the Yukon River and look at kings, come down here and look. Then you can go to halibut, and that’s more a battle, if you will, on some allocations, but on people that are charter boat fishermen and people that are long-lining or ever how they’re catching their halibut. It doesn’t matter. The number of fish are declining and the number of people that want to go take them is  increasing and you have to take a look at that equation. There will be some ruthlessness in this and we know that there was a recent initiative – I wasn’t a part of that, I’ve read about it, and I know some of the names involved with it – but those sort of things are symptomatic of people going, “well you know, we’re just not satisfied with the way things are working, so we’re gonna ask the people to help us with it,” and it’s a tough proposition. And, unfortunately, there will be a lot of blood, some cases sweat, some cases tears and other cases blood, and what I want is more fish blood and less people blood.

I just have one more question, thank you so much for your time. There are hundreds of bills to get through that have already been filed. This is the second session of the 28th Legislature, so whatever doesn’t get done at the end of this 90 days goes away and you have to start over. Are there must haves that you see simply have to be taken care of during this final session.

Sen. Huggins – The budget. You know, all of my bills  are more important than the rest of the bills, alright? You know, Mike Chenault that are more important. But, philosophically, I think Mike Chenault and I approach this very similarly. For every bill you pass, you take a couple off the books because the books are getting too thick and we bog ourselves down. Nobody knows what the rules are and we just keep adding more rules – there’s something wrong with that as a society, but in this case the legislature. And philosophically, I’ve told our guys, and I believe this, at the break point that we, we, bills that I have, Mike Chenault has, and members of the Senate in this case, you look back and say, “You know, that was a good idea, but nobody else recognized my good idea, just pull it off the table.” Just pull it off the table. Don’t have the committee chairman have to just be accused of, “well it’s just sitting there, you won’t hear it.” Maybe it’s not a good idea. And let’s be honest, there are some people that introduce bills just for effect. They say, “I supported legislation,” and knowing full well that they were just introducing  a bill for effect. I find that a little distasteful, but it happens.