With Kerttula’s resignation, the Democrats will have a new leadership team in the Legislature. Hollis French took over as Senate Minority leader from Johnny Ellis in a pre-arranged deal this session. And now Chris Tuck will become minority leader in the House. Representative Tuck says the Democrats are ready to move forward without Kerttula.
Representative Chris Tuck, how surprising was it to learn about Representative Kerttula’s departure?
Rep. Tuck – We’ve had enough notice to get a caucus together and realign our visions with one another and be able to march forward. We have a great team of people put together, with the new member that may be put on in Rep. Kerttula’s place, that will make us about 50% new members, so we have an exciting group of people with a lot of great ideas for the state, a lot of fresh faces and I think going forward you’re going to see a new type of caucus.
You mentioned realigning your ideas, your priorities, what would that involve?
Rep. Tuck – We want to make sure that we provide jobs for all Alaskans and not just any jobs, good paying jobs. We’re concerned about the deficits that we’re facing here in the future because that may cripple our economy so we’re trying to protect the revenues for the state of Alaska. We also want to make sure our economy continues forward and a big part of that economy is energy and a good solid education for future generations.
Senator French, you’ve been in the legislature for a long time, are you concerned with this shift that the democratic caucus may be ignored or not recognized?
Sen. French – Well let me just first say, I’ve worked with Beth since I first walked into this building 11 years ago. And so obviously we’re all going to miss her, she’s a source of positivity and people generally just like her because of those qualities. On the other hand, you know, life goes on. We’ve seen members leave, we saw Senator Elton leave in a similar way a few years ago and you know people adjust. You still have the same outlets of expression you had before and you just have to find new players to take those big shoes and fill them.
Will this change the priorities you have for this session?
Sen. French – You know I think we’re going to be coming back over and over again to the deficits, to education and to this proposed gas pipeline and we’ll be hammering on those until we gavel out.
Well let’s talk a bit about the deficit. Where do you think the state should be cutting?
Sen. French – It’s a constant exercise to keep downward pressure on the growth of government. I think we’ve lost some of those muscles in the last few years because of surpluses, you just lose some that ability to always look as hard as possible to look at every line in the budget. This year I expect the budget process to be as rigorous as it’s ever been.
Representative Tuck would you like to add to that?
Rep. Tuck – With the surpluses we’ve had the last few years in making sure we’ve got our fair share from the oil industry, we’ve been able to invest in our departments. In our administration to bring ourselves up to the 21st century. If you look at the Department of Motor Vehicles, how easy it is to get on line and renew your registration, where in the past we weren’t able to do that. So by investing when we were able to, we were able to be more efficient in delivering services to Alaskans so now maybe it’s time to draw a little of that back. Some of the departments we may still need to do some of that, invest a little more to be more efficient, but that’s it just finding more efficiencies within operating government.
The state has a new gas line deal. During the Murkowski administration, similar ideas of an ownership share were discussed. Do you think this agreement will be different?
Sen. French – We’ve got a long way to go. I was here when that contract was negotiated. I have seen what happens when you try to negotiate your way to a gas pipeline deal with the oil industry and the results last time were so horrific they never even came up for a vote. Even the Republicans in the legislature saw that contract and couldn’t stomach bringing it to a vote, it was so one sided. So I hope we get a different result this time but I like I think many Alaskans have lost some faith in the Parnell administration’s ability to negotiate fairly on their behalf, having seen what happened just last year with the oil tax give away.
Do you have plans for what you might like to see and what you’ll suggest?
Sen. French – We’re going to go back to certain must haves. You have to have a structure that allows nimble new players to come to the North Slope, to invest there and then most importantly, to be able to get their gas into that pipeline down to the terminus on terms that are fair and allow them to make a profit. What we’ve seen on the oil industry side is some basin control that make it more difficult for new players to come and get their oil into the pipeline. The tariffs can be so high and so exacting on new players that it’s tough for them to make a profit. You’ve got to have those mid sized companies and smaller companies exploring aggressively beyond the big three to make it really work.
Do you have numbers you’d like to see in that regard?
Sen. French – It’s more about the open basin, open access to the pipeline. The terms of the access, that’s key. Everyone wants to see a pipeline built, that’s exciting, that’s fun, it’s job and people make money, but it’s a 50 year project so the structure of the deal has got to allow for an evolvement over time of new players to come to the north slope and for that player to get a fair tariff so they can make a profit.
And what would that look like in your ideal setting?
Sen. French – Well you’ve got to make sure there is room for expansion and the expansions are done in a way that doesn’t penalize the new player. The person who builds the pipeline wants to charge the next guy a huge amount to get in, to keep it less competitive. Most businesses aren’t really interested in competition. You’ve got to have a structure on that deal that allows for that. That’s where government is extremely important, is structuring the terms of that pipeline in a way that allows new entrants into that pipeline and down to the shipping terminal.
Representative Tuck, what would you like to see for terms in this new gas line deal?
Rep Tuck – Well, if Alaska is going to be investing its money into a new pipeline system, we need to make sure that we negotiate from a position of strength. We need to be at the board making decisions. I know the gas industry wants to minimize their risk as much as possible but we shouldn’t be taking on that risk. It should be equal risk and equal benefits so I want to see something that mutually benefits both parties.
There is a minimum wage ballot initiative, how would you react if a minimum wage bill was introduced in this session? Senator French?
Sen. French – With deep skepticism. My first year in the legislature was the year after the legislature had passed a minimum wage bill in order to get the minimum wage bill off the ballot back in 2002. And the legislature pulled a fast one, because they came back and changed the bill they had passed just the year before in order to negatively affect the people they were supposed to help. So I would be in the odd position of fighting a minimum wage bill tooth and nail.
Rep. Tuck – For those reasons stated by Senator French, I too would be very skeptical and would rather have the people be able to vote on the conditions as spelled out with this initiative.
You lost the fight to raise the base student allocation for four or five years, do you have any reason to think it will be different this session?
Sen. French – I think the negative effects of flat funding are now trickling into the classroom. In today’s Anchorage Daily News, we see that the school district is looking at a $23 million deficit and cutting as many as 200 jobs. You can’t get there cutting custodians and people that stock the storerooms. We’re down to cutting teachers and that creates an enormous constituency of parents who are extremely upset about the quality of their children’s education. When it’s just us politicians here in Juneau making noise that’s one thing. But when you have thousands of affected people from Juneau to Ketchikan to Kotzebue making noise, that’s different and that creates a political wave we hope to harness.
Are you hearing a lot from constituents? Are they coming in and sending letters and weighing in enough that you think that pressure will build?
Sen. French – Representative Tuck and I recently attended a pre-session caucus of the Anchorage legislators in the Anchorage assembly chambers and of the 100 people that testified, I think 90 of them mentioned increasing education funding so I think there’s a ground swell coming on this.
Representative Tuck, what do you think about how this fight will go with base student allocation?
Rep. Tuck – Well I hope that our members on the other side are listening to the public because as Senator French pointed out, we had overwhelming support. It wasn’t just parents and teachers, it was people in the community that don’t have children in the education system but understand the importance of how we all rely on the education of children in how we operate. After all, when you call 911, it’s someone’s child that comes to your assistance. So we all rely on that. So I’m hoping as we go forward, first of all that we have this discussion earlier rather than later and that we actually do something this year. It is an election year, you never know how people are going to react on this. The Governor did point out in his release of the budget that he wanted to work with the legislative body on education funding. I wish he would have put his money where his mouth is and actually put something in his budget but he’s relying on us to do that and I hope we do the right thing.
A recent task force report recommended cutting education funding. What’s your reaction to this?
Rep. Tuck – Well, I haven’t gone through the report, I did hear that they did recommend cutting, but you know one of the things we need to do is invest in early education. Because the remediation that we’re spending is costing so much. So once you start off early in a child’s education and once you get parents involved early, they tend to stay involved and their successes are much better off. You don’t wait till third grade to start remediating because by the time you get to third grade, the costs go up and once a student goes into remediation programs, you almost never get them out. The goal is to invest early and make sure the teachers have the resources they need to be able to start our students off right from the beginning.
Senator French what are your thoughts about this report that suggests cutting education funding?
Sen. French – I was very dismayed by that report and I was happy to see business leaders like Andrew Halcro who was a member of that task force speaking out against it. I think as Representative Tuck just said, business leaders can see the value in an educated work force and we’re just not getting the job done. I’ve talked to business leaders who say they have to turn back half the high school graduates they get because they just can’t fill entry level jobs. That’s not the right approach. I share Representative Tuck’s passion for early childhood education. One of the few bills I filed is for statewide voluntary pre kindergarten. I’m going to be pushing that. You could fund that with 1% of what the Governor has proposed to put into the PERS/TERS shortfall. 1% could fund annual pre K statewide.
Beyond BSA, what other ideas might you offer to help raise the graduation rate and get more kids into college that might not cost any money?
Sen. French – Representative Tuck for years has been pushing for something called parents as teachers and it goes back to the earlier years but you see so many benefits. If you think about the arch of a child’s life as shooting an arrow into the future, where can you change the trajectory of that arrow the most and for the least amount of money. It’s obviously at ages 2, 3, 4 and 5. So Representative Tuck is really gotten me excited about giving parents some tools. To pick up learning disabilities, to pick up some problems they may be having and doing things we may take for granted such as reading, singing and playing with your child in ways that stimulate that mind to make it grow into the biggest Alaskan brain you can make. I’m happy to co-sponsor that bill on the Senate side. It doesn’t cost much money to get parents to make a big difference in kid’s lives.
Representative Tuck, this is obviously a passion of yours, what would you want to see put forward to help in this regard?
Rep. Tuck – That’s one of the best investments we can make. Unfortunately when we passed this bill, it was 9 million dollars, 3 million over the next three years. Unfortunately that got cut to 400, 000 and then 200,000 last year. Well you can hardly serve very many families. With the remoteness of Alaska, with the small population densities so removed from each other, this is the most cost effective way we can deliver. And rather than educating the child, this is educating the parents on how you can take advantage of learning opportunities as a child’s mind develops from age zero to five years of age. When you’re three years old, that’s the best time to introduce a second language into someone’s life. I had no idea. It’s been a grear learning experience, RURALCAP has been promoting and overseeing the program but now what we’re trying to do is expand it to all Alaskan familes.
Thank you for your time, is there anything else you’d like Alaskans to know about what they should expect out of this final session, the second session of the 28th Legislature.
Rep. Tuck – From the Democrats in the legislature, we’re going to do everything we can to protect and build Alaska’s future.
Senator French, thoughts on the second session of the 28th Legislature and what Alaskans should know?
Sen. French – Every session brings its own unique challenges and often times you don’t even know what they are on the first day, sometimes it takes a few weeks to develop. But I’m excited about this session, I’m optimistic, I think we’re going to get some great work done and we’re going to keep up pressure on the administration to explain what went wrong with the oil tax they passed last year and why we should support them on a gas pipeline they suddenly came up with in the interim.
Are you afraid the majority may not recognize you since you’ll be down to nine members?
Rep. Tuck – Last year, we had the unfortunate circumstance of Representative Guttenberg having to leave the legislature for a while. We were able to maintain and manage with nine of us and we did a very good job. We stayed united, we fought the good fight, we stood up for Alaskans. This year it’s going to be hard to see Beth go, she has a lot of institutional knowledge, she was a big part of who we are as a caucus, so was Representative David Guttenberg. We don’t know how long it will take for this process to get another member there. But in the meantime, we have people prepared to take over those roles, and going down to nine members, there is that potential that the committee on committees under the guidance of the Speaker may remove us from committees or even a few of us off committees, but I don’t think so. I think it would be a disadvantage for the legislature and I think the leadership on the other side recognizes that. We should still have a voice, it’s important for us to have a voice to make the process go and make legislation as good as we can make it.