Alaska Senate passes bill to pay for Alaska’s essential and laid-off workers to attend college

Sen. Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, speaks in favor of Senate Bill 10 on May 17, 2021, in the Senate chamber of the Alaska State Capitol. The bill would pay tuition for Alaskans who were employed as essential workers or laid off at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. (KTOO 360TV screen capture)
Sen. Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, speaks in favor of Senate Bill 10 on Monday, May 17, 2021, in the Capitol. The bill would pay tuition for Alaskans who were employed as essential workers or laid off at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. (KTOO 360TV screen capture)

A bill that passed the Alaska Senate on Monday would pay university tuition for Alaskans who were employed as an essential worker or were laid off when the federal COVID-19 emergency began. 

Senate Bill 10 would provide up to $10 million through the end of 2024 for students to attend Alaska colleges or other state-certified postsecondary programs. Students must apply for grants this year. 

Anchorage Democratic Sen. Tom Begich sponsored the bill. He said it’s in thanks for those who put themselves at risk.

“Folks lost opportunity during this pandemic,” he said. “They lost work. They lost their health. I’m urging a yes vote in support of those frontline workers — and those who’ve suffered, whether from the pandemic directly or from loss of employment.”

The funding would come from the state’s share of the federal American Rescue Plan Act money. Begich noted that people with college degrees are paid more on average than those without. 

“It’s about giving those who’ve given up so much during the pandemic something that could be life-changing,” he said. “The path to a successful democracy is an educated public.”

Anchorage Republican Sen. Natasha von Imhof voted for the measure. She said it’s a form of investment in the state. And she emphasized that being able to use the federal pandemic aid was appropriate, and would avoid spending other state money.

Palmer Republican Sen. Shelley Hughes voted against the bill. She said the money could be spent for a different purpose. 

“Even though it’s going to be paid by all federal aid … that seems good, but those are all public tax dollars,” she said.

The Senate passed the bill 12 to 7. All seven Democrats voted for it, as did Republican Sens. Click Bishop of Fairbanks; Josh Revak of Anchorage, Bert Stedman of Sitka, Gary Stevens of Kodiak and von Imhof. The other Republicans voted against it, except for Sen. Mia Costello of Anchorage, who was absent.

The bill now goes to the House of Representatives. If the House passes it, Gov. Mike Dunleavy would decide whether to sign it or veto it. 

Andrew Kitchenman

State Government Reporter, Alaska Public Media & KTOO

State government plays an outsized role in the life of Alaskans. As the state continues to go through the painful process of deciding what its priorities are, I bring Alaskans to the scene of a government in transition.

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