Democrat gains staff, focuses on Power Cost Equalization after switch to Senate Majority

Sen. Donny Olson, D-Nome, at a Senate minority press availability, March 4, 2015. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

Sen. Donny Olson, D-Nome, at a Senate minority press availability, March 4, 2015. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

Sen. Donny Olson joined Republicans in the Senate Majority last month, and with that move came funds for one more staffer. Olson, a Democrat from Golovin, brought on a former employee who has a long history in the Alaska Legislature.

“I hired my former chief of staff, David Gray, who has been working in the legislature for more than 30 years,” Olson explained.

Gray’s resume includes work with former senator and Alaska Native rights advocate Willie Hensley, former Kotzebue lawmaker and Alaska Native leader Frank Ferguson, and current Sen. Lyman Hoffman of Bethel.

Gray was in retirement when Olson got the funds for one more staffer. Gray is now working part-time on specialized projects and makes $49 per hour.

Olson said he made sure his fellow Democrats weren’t affected by his move.

“I made sure the minority caucus, the friends and colleagues I have there, the other Democrats, did not lose any staff, did not lose their press person, did not lose their webmaster, and they were still able to continue on,” Olson said.

Minority leader Sen. Berta Gardner confirmed her caucus did not lose any resources with Olson’s move to the majority. She said they remain on good terms with Olson.

“We have had no falling out with him,” Gardener said. “It’s nothing to do with our caucus. It’s about how he can best advocate for the needs of his district, and that is what every legislator is called to do.”

Gardner said Olson’s move is understandable since certain projects are more pressing in rural Alaska.

“In Alaska, what matters to rural legislators is capital projects,” Gardner said. “Capital is the difference between clean water and not having clean water, or sewage or new schools.”

One capital project Olson is focusing on is the Power Cost Equalization, or PCE, project, which helps people afford the high cost of energy in rural Alaska. Olson’s newest staffer, David Gray, is working to preserve funding for the PCE amid state budget cuts.

The House Finance Committee is considering taking more than $24 million from the PCE fund to help refinance the University of Alaska budget.

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