Gov. Parnell addresses budget, ‘Choose Respect’ and education
Governor Parnell says he has three main priorities for the legislative session that started this week in Juneau: education, the gas line and the unfunded Pers/Ters pension fund liability.
Parnell says the budget will be tight this year, but Alaskans have been through this before.
After years of surpluses, Alaska is now facing a $2 billion shortfall. The state is expecting to draw on a substantial amount of savings. Under your leadership, capital budgets have grown. What would you propose now for revisiting that and reining those expenses in?
Gov. Parnell – Well, Alaskans will remember that we’ve been here before. Because our budget is dependent upon oil revenues, and the price of oil goes up and down, historically, we’ve always used those savings to buffer those lower-price times. That’s the situation we’re in right now. So, we need to be restrained and we need to be prudent about those investments we make – we want to make them count. So, we’re gonna focus on those constitutional priorities; we’re gonna focus on education, on public safety, on transportation. But, we’re also gonna work at the systemic, to make those systemic changes so that our kids, down the road, don’t have their education budget squeezed by an unfunded pension liability payment like we do today. So, instead of paying $1.1 billion to fund that pension liability obligation some years from now, I’m gonna propose a way forward where they’re paying $500 million in those years ahead. So, it’s about keeping our eye on the future, but making those important investments for today.
The new gas line agreement you recently signed has the state taking an equity share in the pipeline. You’ve talked about this as a new idea, but when we look back to the days of Governor Murkowski’s administration, there were similar ideas. What makes this deal different from that proposal?
Gov. Parnell – Quite a few things are different in this proposal. But, I do believe, fundamentally, like many governors before me that Alaska can better control its destiny and better own its destiny if we own a stake in this gas line. What’s different this time is that there will be more public process, more transparency to it, so instead of having one legislative session where the fiscal deal is done at once, billions of dollars are put at risk at once, we move through stage gates, or phases of this project just like companies do all the time. So, for example, the next 18 months – what is known as pre-feed, the pre-front-end engineering and design work – that’s what these agreements address. It allows us to move forward in an aligned fashion on a gas line, but only through that first stage. Once that pre-feed stage is done, we come back to the legislature, show what’s gone before, show the new agreements that have been negotiated for the next stage – known as feed – get approval and the legislature’s commitment after a public process. So, one of the key things that’s different this time is the openness and transparency of the process and the less risk to Alaskans along the way.
You’ve hinted at an education proposal that would be more supportive of expanding the charter school system. How does that help communities off the road system?
Gov. Parnell – Well, because any time you put money into the hands of parents or anytime you loosen the restrictions on charter school creation, that opens opportunities to parents in rural areas and in urban areas. There’s just no question. And in fact some of our charter schools are in the rural areas. So, the issue is really one of giving charter schools, which are part of the public school system, giving them and their students equal treatment with the rest of the public school system.
You graduated from East High in Anchorage. If you had young kids that were about the enter the Anchorage public school system, would you feel OK about their education, given the extensive cuts the district has made and will continue to make?
Gov. Parnell – That really is dependent upon each parent. And for our kids, we had our kids in both public schools during their K-12 grades and we had them in a private as well. So, we had that ability to choose. For somebody that doesn’t have that ability, I say we have to do better so that they have more opportunity as young people in our schools. And I think the question that you ask is a good one. It’s pretty tough to say that funding hasn’t been increased from the state – because it has – but I think we have to deal with the fundamental structure that we put money into and say, “are our kids getting value for the dollars we’re spending?” And in some cases I think they are, and in some cases they are not. That, again, is a huge debate that is going to be had here in the halls of the legislature and throughout the state as we move forward. I remain committed to making sure that our kids get the best education that we can provide. I’ve set a goal along with others across the for a 90 percent graduation rate by 2020. We’ve made progress. In fact, our graduation rate I believe has improved the last three years or so. But we have a long ways to go to get to 90 percent. I want the discussion to be about, how do we get to that 90 percent graduation rate? It’s not just about how much money we can spend, it’s about how that money gets spent. And those are two sides of the equation that I intend to bring together in Juneau for the benefit of our kids.
When you rejected the Medicaid expansion, you said the state’s community health centers already are helping the population the expansion was intended to serve. But those clinics are really counting on increased funding from Medicaid expansion. Do you think the legislature should appropriate more community health center funding?
Gov. Parnell – One of my points in declining Medicaid expansion was that we weren’t fixing anything for Alaskans who are having to pay for the system. The working class Alaskans whose healthcare costs are going up, whose health policies are being cancelled, again it’s this argument of why are we putting more money in a system when there’s no perceived benefit, there’s no benefit that can be ascertained to the broad swath of Alaskans who are losing policies and paying more for health care. The dollars from a federal Medicaid expansion certainly help health care providers, but there’s little indication that for putting billions of dollars more into our system, that our kids and grandkids will pay for, that that actually has any other benefit than further increasing costs and laying the debt and burden on them. So, it was this balance of looking at the population that needs health care and health care coverage, looking at where they currently have access to that through the community health centers is one place. And seeing if we can’t better target the funds or channel the funds to where they’re needed instead of just a big outpouring, a big parachuting of federal dollars into the system. It didn’t make sense to me.
You recently sent out a mailer that says, “Alaskans are free from sexual violence” under your watch. In fact, the rate of sexual violence has gone up. Do you think your “Choose Respect” campaign is working?
Gov. Parnell – So, I don’t believe what you just said. You just said that sexual violence has gone up. Reported sexual violence has gone up. And I think that’s a distinction that really needs to be made. When we started the “Choose Respect” initiative, when that first survey came out that exposed all of Alaska to how the epidemic of domestic violence and sexual assault is in our state, I was cautioned by people that said, “Look, if you’re gonna take this on, the numbers are gonna go up in the first five years or so because you’re spotlighting an issue that people have kept hidden in the dark, and on one hand the victims and survivors feel guilt and shame and don’t report, but when we have 150 communities marching and other Alaskans standing courageously for those victims and survivors, more report because more have the courage gained from seeing their fellow Alaskans standing in front of them. So, yes, reported harm is up, but I also know just from the letters and correspondence I get and that the accounts I’ve heard in all the shelters, that following an event or leading up to a “Choose Respect” rally, just even the fact that a poster is put up in a village that says, “Join us for the ‘Choose Respect’ march,” will no longer be silent about domestic violence and sexual assault. That mere putting up of a poster, in one instance, caused a young woman to call and get the help she needs and get out of her violent situation. So, to me, that’s working. If together we can help one, and I know we’ve helped hundreds if not thousands, break that cycle –stand up and get the help they need, I look forward to a day when we’re not talking about the epidemic anymore. We’re still gonna be talking about the harm, but we’re not talking about this as an epidemic.