Permanent Fund Dividends, education and funding for law enforcement were among the issues that caused friction during the recently adjourned legislative session in Juneau. Bryce Edgmon discusses how the decisions made could affect Bristol Bay.
Alaska’s 30th Legislative Session adjourned on May 13. Dillingham democrat and Speaker of the House, Bryce Edgmon sat down with KDLG’s Avery Lill at the end of May to talk about some decisions made that will reverberate deeply in Bristol Bay.
Lill: Representative Edgmon, thanks so much talking with me today. You’re home after the session ended on May 13th. That’s a far cry from last year, which dragged on with special sessions in November. I want to get into the substantive issues that were decided. But first, what made the difference? How was the session able to end so much earlier this year after last year’s gridlock?
Edgmon: Well, thank you, Avery. First off, it’s very nice to be back home this time of year. It’s been a while. I think it’s been four years since I’ve been able to be back home in May. So very nice, of course, to be back.
I would say that we, we being the House and Senate leadership and the Governor and the legislature probably as a whole just started this session out with the resolve that we were going to everything possible to sort of reconcile our differences, come to agreement in a manner that would allow us to get out early, before the 121-day mark that is in the Alaska constitution.
Lill: Let’s talk about some of the issues. I wanted to start with the Permanent Fund Dividends. That was a heated issue in this session. The decision finally passed the house and senate. Dividend checks are capped at $1600 this year, and the legislature is now allowed to spend about 5 percent of the fund’s value per year. This is the first time in state history the budget has included significant funding from the Permanent Fund. How does this sit with you? How did it shake out from where you stood?
Edgmon: Well first on the Permanent Fund Dividend, a very controversial issue. In the House there was a vote for a full divided. I voted a yes to provide for a full dividend. And the outcome of that vote was very surprising. It was 21 to 19 margin to provide for a full dividend. But soon after it became apparent that we couldn’t’ get the votes to pass the operating budget with a full Permanent Fund Dividend, so we had to sort of take a second approach to it. I was very adamant that I wanted a larger dividend than last year and that I would not, as a presiding officer, and certainly as a member of the House, accept a lower dividend amount than we ended up with. And the compromise was to up the dividend from last year’s $1100 amount to the $1600 this year.
Lill: And then, as far as the draw from the Permanent Fund, I know you’ve had some concerns about the health of the Permanent Fund overall. Does that draw fall in a range that you think is sustainable?
Edgmon: I think that’s a great question. The legislature did pass a bill, Senate Bill 26, that essentially limits what the legislature in the future can draw down from the fund, limits to about 5.25 percentage draw down for three years, and then from the fourth year on, that amount would be reduced to five percent. And the 5.25 percent number was chosen based on recommendations from the Permanent Fund trustees and the analysis that they had outside firms provide them in terms of what the long range earning potential of the Permanent Fund might be. And I think the bill in many ways, it’s significant because it does in my view, provide not only a spending cap for the legislature in the future in terms of draw drowns. But also, I think it helps protect a healthy permanent fund dividend. And, if you can protect the fund as a whole, the fund will grow over time but, as well, allow the legislature and those who depend on state services to be able to receive the money to keep our schools open, to keep Village Public Safety Officers on the streets, to keep our Power Cost Equalization program among just a whole other array of services intact.
Lill: And let’s talk about those schools because education was another issue that was contentious throughout. The House and Senate had to work pretty hard to reconcile bills for funding toward the end. How did that turn out, and what was at stake.
Edgmon: Well in the House, the coalition that I represent, we wanted a couple of things. We wanted to end the battle of school districts having to send layoff notices to teachers. So, we passed legislation and got the senate to finally concur with it that would provide for early funding for this year. Then throughout the entire mix of things, at the end we agreed with the senate that we would not only provide early funding this year but also increase the funding by $20 million for Fiscal Year 2019, beginning on July 1. And then in FY20, the year afterward, school funding would as well be early funded but with an additional increase of $30 million.
Lill: And then another focus of this year’s legislation was fighting crime. How is that going to affect Bristol Bay?
Edgmon: In the operating budget, we did increase the Department of Public Safety by about $34 million dollars. We increased funding, or included funding, for substance abuse treatment and a statewide drug prosecutor and a few other positions that are arguably sort of modest in scope does represent providing our crime agencies with more resources. In an era when we have $2.5 to $3 billion dollar gap in our budget, again, I think that the outcomes were very reasonable this session.
Lill: Stepping back from the nitty-gritty, you were tapped as House Speaker in November of 2016. That’s significant for a number of reasons, but key among those, you’re the first House speaker of Alaska Native decent. Can you tell me about the significance of that and how that’s been?
Edgmon: Well it was an incredible honor, and it was not something that I was vying for. But to be chosen by my peers to be speaker, it’s a huge responsibility, and it’s a position that wields a lot of influence. It brought many a challenging day before me, I would have to admit. But really, I’m very pleased to have been the speaker the last couple of years. And I’ve done everything I could as the first Alaska Native speaker to make sure we did things like name the House Finance Committee room after the late Senator Al Adams and to use my position as I could to bring attention to Alaska Native issues and, really, to emphasize the importance of the culture and certainly the tradition and the wellbeing of small communities and villages throughout the state that are predominantly Alaska Native.
Lill: Thank you so much for taking the time to come by and talk today.
Edgmon: It’s been my pleasure, and have a great summer.