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Rookie Sen. Bjorkman on three months in Juneau

Sen. Jesse Bjorkman presents his lumber grading bill in the Senate Finance Committee.
Riley Board
Sen. Jesse Bjorkman presents his lumber grading bill in the Senate Finance Committee.

First-term Republican State Sen. Jesse Bjorkman has been representing the Kenai Peninsula in the Alaska Legislature for almost three months.

Bjorkman is a former Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly Member and government teacher at Nikiski Middle/High School, where he’s currently on a leave of absence. Earlier this year, he moved his wife, two kids, two cars and dog from Nikiski to Juneau to represent District D at the Capitol.

While adjusting to Juneau’s more temperate climate and finding a local school for his kids, he’s been introducing bills, chairing a committee and serving in the Senate Majority.

“Most importantly, I’m just really thankful to the folks from the Kenai Peninsula for trusting me with this position and giving me the opportunity to represent you so that we can move forward to priorities that are important to working folks,” he said.

Bjorkman ran on a campaign of prioritizing fiscal stability and public safety, improving roads, and creating high standards in public schools. Those promises have remained his priorities in the Senate. He chairs the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee, where he said his teaching background influences how he looks at the connection between education and workforce.

“Being around middle and high school education informs some of what we do on Labor and Commerce because of opportunities with the Department of Labor through places like AVTEC in Seward, as well as other vocational education centers, to cooperate with K-12 education,” he said.

Bjorkman has been the primary sponsor on two bills this session, both focused on creating economic opportunities in the state. The first is a setnet buyback program he inherited from his predecessor, then-Sen. Peter Micciche, who introduced the bill twice while in office.

The second bill would allow Alaska lumber mill owners to grade, or evaluate, their own lumber then sell it to contractors, without a third party in the middle.

“That’s a really great opportunity through a piece of legislation to drive value in our local economy, and open up new uses for local lumber that are not currently being used because of stringent government regulation,” he said.

The bill allows for lumber producers to take a class and get certified to grade their own lumber. Bjorkman said he introduced the bill at the suggestion of Kenai Peninsula Borough Land Manager Marcus Mueller, to support local forestry and lumber efforts.

“This idea had been circulating, but really just needed the juice to get moving through the legislative process,” he said.

Members of the public expressed support for the bill at a hearing in front of the Senate Finance Committee Wednesday, where it’s currently being held.

Bjorkman said the biggest surprise of his tenure in the legislature so far has been how much of his schedule is taken up by constituent meetings, and how little time is available to meet with other legislators.

“All 60 legislators are very busy crafting legislation, working on amendments, meeting with people throughout the building, that many times we have back-to-back meetings with other people that are not legislators, and those things happen all day, most days,” he said. “So it’s difficult, and you really have to work to seek out time to meet with other legislators to actually get the work done.”

Because the legislative session adjourns before the summer, Bjorkman will be able to teach at Nikiski Middle/High School for the fall semester. In the meantime, he’s on unpaid leave.

Bjorkman said it’ll be refreshing to return to teaching after a non-stop session in Juneau.

“Part of my mission as a teacher, and why I really enjoy education and teaching kids so much, is that I get to share in that with them, and I get to help them paint a vision for the future of their lives that they find enjoyable and meaningful and worthwhile.”

He said he has no expectation that his students will treat him any different now that he’s a legislator.

This story was supported by the Alaska Center for Excellence in Journalism's Legislative Reporter Exchange Program.

Riley Board is a Report For America participant and senior reporter at KDLL covering rural communities on the central Kenai Peninsula.
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