We’re less than a week away from the start of the 2023 legislative session and the House has still not organized a majority, but that hasn’t stopped the 17-member Senate bipartisan majority from getting down to business.
Today, the majority announced its finalized committee leadership as well as its top legislative priorities for the legislative session: lowering the cost of energy, lowering the cost of health care, providing “adequate” funding for public education “while assessing accountability and performance” and “seeking solutions” for the state’s public employee and teacher recruitment and retention.
While the first three points are fairly standard priorities, the last point is sure to grab some attention.
Alaska’s public employee retirement system, which transitioned from a traditional pension system to a 401K-style retirement plan in the mid-2000s, has been a source of a significant amount of heartburn in recent years as the state has struggled to retain employees in just about every field with other states lure employees away with the promise of long-term certainty. The problem is compounded by the fact that Alaska’s state employees and teachers are not eligible for Social Security benefits.
In an interview with the Alaska Beacon’s Yereth Rosen, Anchorage Sen. Cathy Giessel said both a potential return to a pension-style retirement system and a return to Social Security could be on the table this year.
“It’s quite likely that we’re going to be looking at some kind of a pension retirement-type program,” she said.
Legislation that would have created a pension retirement system for police and firefighters was considered last session as recruitment and training costs have continued to balloon, but ultimately stalled in the Senate after a lengthy stint in the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee.
A few retirement-related bills have already been pre-filed with the Alaska Legislature, which includes Rep. Andy Josephson’s House Bill 22 (pensions for police and firefighters) and Sen. Jesse Kiehl’s Senate Bill 11 (an optional pension program for teachers).
The Senate also finalized its committee chairs for the session. Most, if not all, had been announced when the majority announced its formation in December. The committee chairs for the Senate are as follows:
- Community & Regional Affairs: Sen.-elect Forrest Dunbar (D-Anchorage)
- Education: Sen.-elect Löki Tobin (D-Anchorage)
- Health & Social Services: Sen. David Wilson (R-Wasilla)
- Judiciary: Sen.-elect Matt Claman (D-Anchorage)
- Labor & Commerce: Sen.-elect Jesse Bjorkman (R-Nikiski)
- Resources: Co-Chairs – Sen. Click Bishop (R-Fairbanks) and Sen.-elect Cathy Giessel (R-Anchorage)
- State Affairs: Sen. Scott Kawasaki (D-Fairbanks)
- Transportation: Sen.-elect James Kaufman (R-Anchorage)
- Legislative Budget & Audit: Vice Chair – Sen. Bert Stedman (R-Sitka)
- Joint Armed Services: Co-Chair – Sen. Scott Kawasaki (D-Fairbanks)
The leadership of the 17-member majority includes Senate President Gary Stevens (R-Kodiak), Majority Leader Cathy Giessel (R-anchorage), Rules Chair Bill Wielechowski (D-Anchorage), Majority Whip Click Bishop (R-Fairbanks), Legislative Council Chair Elvi Gray Jackson (D-Anchorage), and Finance Committee co-chairs Sens. Bert Stedman (R-Sitka), Lyman Hoffman (D-Bethel) and Donny Olson (D-Golovin).
The Senate also announced its membership for the powerful Senate Finance Committee in addition to its unusual trio of co-chairs: Sens. Click Bishop (R-Fairbanks), Kelly Merrick (R-Eagle River), Jesse Kiehl (D-Juneau) and David Wilson (R-Wasilla).
The full committee membership is set to be announced on the first day of the legislative session, which is Tuesday, Jan. 17.
The three-member Republican minority—Sens. Mike Shower, Shelley Hughes and Robb Myers—are not guaranteed committee seats under the Legislature’s uniform rules, but majority leadership has expressed interest in gifting them seats if they’re interested.