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Econ 919 — 33rd Legislature Concludes

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Sen. Jesse Bjorkman, R-Nikiski, exits the Senate chamber after a floor session on Jan. 29, 2024.
Eric Stone
Alaska Public Media
Sen. Jesse Bjorkman, R-Nikiski, exits the Senate chamber after a floor session on Jan. 29, 2024.

The 33rd Alaska Legislature finished its session late Wednesday night. Amid its bills passed include education funding that will be critical for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, and other priorities of peninsula legislators.

Back in March, Gov. Mike Dunleavy vetoed a bill that would have increased the Base Student Allocation by $680. That’s the amount of money the state provides to districts per student. The legislature failed to override the veto, and turned instead to a one-time funding boost. The final budget includes a $175 million allocation, which is the equivalent of a $680 increase, but not a permanent change.

The one-time funding will be a major boon to KPBSD, whichrecently passed a budget that didn’t account for any legislative boost. That budget contained about $8 million in cuts across almost every area of the district.

But, anticipating a potential legislative intervention, the district’s Board of Education planned three different budgets, one which accounted for the $680 bump.

“If we get $680, all of these reductions go away,” Board President Zen Kelly said during the budgeting process earlier this spring.

Dunleavy can still reduce that amount through a line-item veto, like he did last year, but he has signaled that he doesn’t plan to do that.

The budget also contains $11.9 million for Maintenance of Equity, $5.5 million of which will come to the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. That’s a response to a letter received by the state’s education department from federal officials, saying it had inequitably reduced funding to certain districts after receiving COVID-19 relief funds. Per the latest letter, the state owes KPBSD about $9.5 million in total.

Lawmakers also passed a bill addressing a court ruling that would stop homeschool parents from accessing state money for courses and activities. Soldotna Republican Rep. Justin Ruffridge, who co-chairs the House Education Committee, authored House Bill 400 to address the ruling. It requires the state to monitor how allotments are spent for the next year and report that information to the legislature.

That language was eventually passed as part of House Bill 202, which would require schools to carry opioid overdose reversal drugs.

“It gives some certainty and surety that our Alaskan families, Mr. President, that value freedom and academic choice can use those allotment monies as they have for a decade,” Nikiski Republican Rep. Jesse Bjorkman said of the bill.

Another one of Bjorkman’s priorities, which was to provide a $5,000 annual bonus to teachers that receive their certification from National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, passed as an amendment to House Bill 230.

The legislature tackled several bills addressing the looming Cook Inlet natural gas shortage, but didn’t pass a cut to royalty rates for Cook Inlet oil and gas producers. The strategy for increasing gas production in Cook Inlet has been favored by the governor, but some lawmakers expressed skepticism about the impact of slashing royalty rates as the session came down to the wire.

House Speaker Cathy Tilton said she expects the legislature to revisit the idea either next session, or in an earlier special session.

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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