The second session of the 28th Legislature began on January 21st. Some of the major issues we will tackle this year are the Governor’s proposed liquefied natural gas pipeline project, education reform, the unfunded liability in the public employees and teachers retirement systems, and how to address a two billion dollar budget deficit. These are just a few of the major issues that will come before the legislature this year and I’m optimistic that we can find solutions that will benefit Alaskans. First, I want to make sure we do no harm. I’m excited about the possibility of finally building a pipeline to get our gas to market but my excitement is tempered by the knowledge that the devil is in the details. As we have witnessed from Governor Palin’s Alaska Gasline Inducement Act (AGIA), all too often good intentions turn into bad public policy. One of the major differences in the project before us this year is the alignment with the gas producers. That didn’t exist under AGIA and is absolutely crucial to the success of any proposal. However, just because the producers are in alignment with their interests doesn’t mean the State is in alignment with TransCanada. I want to ensure that we fully vet this proposal so the State’s interest is protected and the public is comfortable with the State’s equity position.
I have two pending bills I’m working on that I introduced last year in the first session of the 28th Legislature; Senate Bill 60 regarding sea otter population management and Senate Concurrent Resolution 2 urging the State to acquire Tongass National Forest Land. Both of these bills are currently in the Senate Judiciary Committee where they received hearings last session. Senate Concurrent Resolution 2 urges the Governor to select some of the State’s remaining federal land entitlements from the Tongass National Forest thereby removing limitations on what the State can do with the land. This resolution will be rescheduled for a second hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee on February 17th and I anticipate it will keep moving through the legislative process. Senate Bill 60 will also be rescheduled for additional hearings in the coming weeks. I am working with the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee to amend the bill forcing the State to take legal action against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to revise their 20 year old management plan for sea otters in Southeast and ultimately return management authority to the State.
In addition to these two bills, last week I introduced Senate Bill 159 seeking to allow the continuation of the AirCare medivac program in Southeast. Since January 2009, Airlift Northwest, the provider of lifesaving air medical transport services, has offered the popular AirCare membership program to residents of Southeast Alaska. Over 3,200 Alaskans in Southeast are enrolled in the program which covers the cost of any out-of-pocket expenses related to Airlift Northwest’s medevac services. Air medical transportation is expensive and insurance may not cover all the costs. The AirCare program directly helps fund Airlift Northwest so they can transport critically ill or injured patients to hospitals with levels of care not locally available.
Since its inception, the AirCare program was offered to Alaskans under a regulatory exemption it received from the Alaska Division of Insurance. However, after an organizational restructuring, the Division of Insurance deemed the program no longer exempt and ordered Airlift Northwest to cease enrolling new members. Airlift Northwest is allowed to honor their existing memberships but is not allowed to renew expired memberships.
Senate Bill 159 will exempt air ambulance services from the state’s insurance code, thereby allowing Airlift Northwest to continue offering the AirCare program to Alaskans. This bill has been referred to the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee where I have requested a hearing.
I am pleased to have all of my staff returning again this session. Darwin Peterson will continue serving as my chief of staff as well as the Health and Social Services Committee aide. This will be Darwin’s seventh session in my office. Julie Isom first started working in my office in October 2007 and is my longest serving staff member. A resident of Ketchikan, she is the office manager and also serves as my Education Committee aide. Finally, Christie Jamieson from Wrangell worked in my office last session and had so much fun she decided to come back. She is a welcome member of the team and we’re all happy she has returned. Besides working as my Labor and Commerce Committee aide, Christie will assist me with community and constituent relations, public communications and research. She is also shepherding most of my personal bills through the legislative process.