Alaska's former House speaker Rep. Bryce Edgmon on current disorganization: 'We just don't know'
Alaska’s 33rd legislative session convenes on Tuesday. And while the state Senate is organized, the House is not. The midterm elections left Republicans with a narrow majority in the 40-person chamber, but it’s still unclear whether those members will toe the party line or join a multi-party coalition.
Rep. Bryce Edgmon, an Independent from Dillingham, is a former House Speaker and said it’s a familiar pattern: It will be the third legislative cycle where House members begin the session without a concrete idea of who is in the majority.
“The next two years, it's really up in the air. We just don't know. And I think we're all going to Juneau, hoping that we can kind of pull a rabbit out of the hat and put a larger group together, and as I say, put a lot of political swords aside. But again, all that remains to be seen at this point.”
The multiparty coalition has controlled the House since 2017. Edgmon, who served as speaker from 2017 - 2021, expects the state legislature to tackle some longstanding issues that are increasingly pressing, like education funding and a shrinking workforce. He also thinks the Legislature underestimated the impact of the pandemic and the toll of inflation on schools.
“There's one faction of the legislature that will say that the increase for schools is long overdue. We've dilly dallied long enough," he said. "But there's also gonna be another sort of core group of legislators are going to say, ‘Yeah, but what about performance metrics? And are the schools achieving what they're supposed to,’ because Alaska ranks 49 or 50 in whatever category it might be. So I expect that that's going to be a real centerpiece of what we talk about in Juneau, and what we ultimately emerge with at the end of session.”
Edgmon said figuring out how to recruit and retain educators is key to addressing many of the difficulties schools are facing, especially in rural Alaska. Still, he’s cautiously optimistic about the working relationship between the legislature and the governor’s office.
“We have an administration coming in for a second term, and the governor appears more willing to work with the legislature and to be part of the solution, at least in my view.”
Edgmon also pointed out that a second round of funding for the federal infrastructure bill is coming up.
“We're looking at maybe somewhere in the neighborhood of about a billion dollars going through the state budget process, federal money going through the state's capital budget process, largely. So that should be very interesting and enticing. And I think we're going to see $100 million or so in broadband money come through the state budget process as well.”
The next batch of pre-filed legislation will be released on Friday, and the legislature convenes on Tuesday.
Interview: Bryce Edgmon weighs in ahead of 33rd legislative session
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Izzy Ross: Representative Edgmon, thank you so much for joining me today.
Rep. Bryce Edgmon: Thank you. My pleasure to be here.
Ross: So the last time we talked was right before the midterm elections in November. Since then a lot has changed. What does the makeup of the legislature look like now?
Edgmon: Yeah, first off, time goes by so fast, isn't it? So here we are basically, about a week out before the 33rd legislature convenes. The first day is January 17. And at this point, it's really up in the air, because the traditional three legged stool, of course, is the governor, the Senate, and then the House. At this point, the Senate seems to be organized. And the governor of course has got his team in place. And then the house for the third cycle consecutively is landing in Juneau, not being organized, having sort of two different factions, equal in numbers, and basically preparing to go into another sort of round of stare downs, and to figure out how we get a few legislators to sort of decide that the greater good is more important than being with their side.
Ross: Right. And this is not an unfamiliar position.
Edgmon: That's absolutely right. You know, I've been involved in all three of those attempts to organize in the last six years, I've been in leadership positions in the legislature. The next two years, it's really up in the air. We just don't know. And I think we're all going to Juneau, hoping that we can kind of pull a rabbit out of the hat and put a larger group together, and as I say, put a lot of political swords aside. But again, all that remains to be seen at this point.
Ross: Got it. So that's what we're looking at in the legislature. But heading into this session next week, what are you keeping an eye on?
Edgmon: Well, there does seem to be some larger priorities that are sort of bubbling to the surface. Education funding clearly is going to be on the minds of most legislators, and certainly the governor has indicated his willingness to partake in that debate. The issue of a shrinking workforce in Alaska and in the public sector, the state government, the need to be able to offer state workers, sort of an attractive compensation package, but also an attractive retirement package, something along the lines of the defined benefits plan that we had back up until 2006, I think the issue of that is going to come to the forefront.
And then there's a whole host of other issues that always come up. I was looking at the pre-file list of bills before I got here. And it's about 70 bills that have been pre-filed both in the House and the Senate. And a lot of the bills are quite familiar to me, I've seen them come and go many times. But they’re back again. In an environment where oil prices are waning or going down and are below what we projected when we left Juneau this past session, last spring, I think there's going to be a need to tighten our belt a little bit and look at state spending. And we'll be examining the Permanent Fund Dividend as we do every year.
And interestingly enough, I should point out that it'll be round two funding for the federal infrastructure bill. And we're looking at maybe somewhere in the neighborhood of about a billion dollars going through the state budget process, federal money going through the state's capital budget process, largely. So that should be very interesting and enticing. And I think we're going to see $100 million or so in broadband money come through the state budget process as well.
You know, it's going to be one of those sessions [where] we just don't quite yet know how it's gonna turn out.
Ross: Thinking about education funding, I've talked with teachers across the region who have mentioned the pre-2006 retirement plan versus the current retirement plan and how in order to recruit teachers to work in this area, you need to have some incentives to get that started. Do you predict the state moving in any one direction with that, or with education funding in general?
Edgmon: I think we have to take a hard look at the proverbial ‘Where does Alaska go next’ question, because we're in a situation statewide where we've had a somewhat dramatic decrease in younger residents. So we're at this point where oil money isn't the primary funder of government services anymore. But when oil prices do rise, as they did the last calendar year, and they're still fairly high, in the $70 or mid-$80 range, we have other opportunities to tackle things like deferred maintenance, a huge backlogs of projects and everything from the university to our school system to our airports to our roads that just haven't been maintained over the years. And we have the opportunity to keep up hopefully with inflation when it comes to funding our schools and other areas of our public sector.
But it's really interesting because at the start of this session, we have an administration coming in for a second term, and the governor appears more willing to work with the legislature and to be part of the solution, at least in my view. So I'm cautiously encouraged that the next two years are going to really take us in a direction where we start to sort of invest back into Alaska as well. And a lot of it goes back to, you know, particularly out here in the bush, getting qualified people to come out here and stay and to work and to become part long term members, hopefully, of our communities. And we have a role to play in the legislature.
Ross: Are there any other big areas that you're focused on are that you think the state needs to focus its funding efforts, or needs to reconsider how it's moving forward?
Edgmon: Well, you know, broadband is a big issue. Alaska is going to see just unprecedented amounts of money come into the state for broadband over the next five to 10 years. So that's something I’m keeping a close eye on. Last session I introduced — and got the bill signed by the governor — the bill that set up the Broadband Program in Alaska.
But you know, in many respects, a lot of what I think is going to happen in Juneau comes back to education in our schools. I think we underestimated this past session — we collectively across the state underestimated — the toll that the pandemic took on our schools, and the fact that we do have declining enrollment numbers, not just in Anchorage, but all across the state, and sort of the creeping presence of inflation, really has taken its toll on a lot of schools.
There's one faction of the legislature that will say that the increase for schools is long overdue. We've dilly dallied long enough. But there's also gonna be another sort of core group of legislators are going to say, ‘Yeah, but what about performance metrics? And are the schools achieving what they're supposed to,’ because Alaska ranks 49 or 50 in whatever category it might be. So I expect that that's going to be a real centerpiece of what we talk about in Juneau, and what we ultimately emerge with at the end of session,
Ross: That's an interesting, I guess, dichotomy, or two different perspectives to take, because it doesn't seem like they're necessarily competing perspectives. It seems like perhaps an increase in funding could help schools meet those metrics, or could help schools in pursuing those goals for academics for their students, and supporting their students with more resources. What are your thoughts on that? And Bristol Bay schools are dealing with these issues, too, like enrollment, scores being pretty low, and certain communities — I'm just thinking of Chignik Bay — struggling to keep their schools open. So I'm curious to hear what your thoughts are on addressing some of those issues, specifically in the area?
Edgmon: Yeah, well, the challenges that face one school district can be very different for the next school district, and so on and so forth. But I'm very eager to have that conversation in general, and to bring forth the State of the State of Education, if you will, and to look at it more sort of holistically. A moment ago, we were talking about broadband, and the role that that could play for school districts as well.
But we have a hard time, and I think it's getting almost exponentially more challenging going forward. We have a real problem on our hands in terms of recruiting and retaining educators. It is becoming more than pervasive. And I think it's a big reason why Alaska ranks so low, I think back to my own growing up here in Dillingham, and it was commonplace for teachers to be here throughout the entire first grade through 12th grade. Teachers came and they stayed, and they were part of the communities and they raised their families here and their kids graduated from schools. To some degree that's still happening, but to a larger extent it's not.
And so that continuity, and that familiarity, and the comfort level, the acculturation, all that stuff that occurs that I think makes our public education system one of the best in the country, is really being challenged considerably by not being able to get and keep people in those small communities and really across the state as well. That's going to be a real issue that I'm going to focus on. And I think a lot of legislators and the governor, hopefully as well, too.
Ross: Thinking about broadband, something that's been coming across my social media feed recently, especially in the Dillingham community groups has been Starlink and satellite internet. What are your thoughts on that, as both a Dillingham resident and also a legislator?
Edgmon: Well, I think to get high speed, reliable, affordable internet in Alaska is going to involve every form of technology that's out there. Seriously. The gold standard is fiber optic cable. But there are supply chain issues, there's also a host of other issues in terms of right-of-ways and availability of workforce and this, that and the other to get fiber optics in place: our working seasons out here are very short. So satellite technology — both the bigger satellites that are further away from the Earth, rotating, and the smaller satellites that are more focused — is there to provide service in some capacities in a pretty immediate manner. I think that when you look back at our telephone system and certainly internet for a great part of the state, it's all come through satellites. So there's a huge role for satellites to play.
Starlink, I've read about it, just like everybody else has, I'm hearing some good things, mostly, about it. And it's bringing services to a lot of areas that really didn't have reliable service before at a fairly reasonable price. In the meanwhile, a community like Unalaska now has got fiber, and that is taking shape at the final mile level, getting fiber right into people's homes and their businesses, and so forth. And so you're really seeing sort of a dual effort go forward: You're seeing what satellite services can provide. But at the same time in the intervening years between now and say, a decade out take place, you're going see more fiber optic cable, crisscrossing the states, and that being available.
Ross: And there are also plans to have a fiber optic cable from Dillingham to Bethel. So even in-region, we're seeing these movements, you know, and we're seeing these projects happening.
Edgmon: Well, the rule of thumb with broadband — and we saw it in Anchorage — is if a community gets what's considered to be high speed internet in a short period of time, the demand for that service doubles. So that's something that in the column of fiber optic cable terms being more of a plus, because there's sort of unlimited capacity and fiber optic cable, and the satellites don't really have that ability. So, again, it comes down to a mix and a match. And I think a lot of this federal money coming in Alaska is going to be focused on getting high quality internet to places that don't have it with an element of making it affordable, however that comes together.
Ross: The state and Bristol Bay are waiting for the EPA to make its final determination on whether and how to veto mining at the Pebble deposit. State primacy of the Clean Water Act has been an ongoing discussion.
Edgmon: Well, from the legislature's perspective, the one issue that we'll be addressing once again is the Dunleavy administration's desire for the state's Department of Environmental Conservation to take primacy over section 404 — water primacy management of the Clean Water Act. We sort of put the kibosh on that last year in the legislature and we kind of punted by instead authorizing a million-dollar study that will be finished up in March sometime. And so that issue of the state taking sort of domicile or control over the permitting process involving that very important section of the Clean Water Act, the 404 section that involves dredge and fill sort of type activities in the most pristine waters. It's going to be complicated and controversial. And we'll see where that goes this session in Juneau.
Ross: Do you think the legislature is going to make any decisions about that?
Edgmon: It would involve the legislature having to take action because the Department of Environmental Conservation last year, they asked for 28 new employees in order to administer this program. Again, in an era where it's hard to find any employees in Alaska, these would be highly qualified technical employees. So it'll have to go through the state budget process. I expect it to, again, involve a lot of back and forth.
I'm passionately opposed to Pebble, I think it shouldn't really be an issue. But we have an administration, the Dunleavy administration, that wants to see it go through the process, and I don't know if that's code for being supportive of it or not. But this issue of gaining primacy over one section of this voluminous, this great federal act called the Clean Water Act that goes some 50 years ago back to 1972, really gave the states the opportunity to take control of this provision.
Over all those years, only three states to my memory — Florida, New Jersey, Michigan — have really taken the federal government up because number one, it's expensive to administer. And number two, there may not be a whole lot of benefit in doing it, given that you've got EPA and Corps of Engineers and others who have been in a state like Alaska with the vast amounts of wetlands of the entire country. They've got strong historical presence, a lot of long-term employees, great relationships with the federal counterparts and what have you. So yeah, that's another issue that could be a flashpoint next session.
Ross: Really looking forward to following along this legislative session. Representative Edgmon, thank you so much for taking a couple minutes to talk.
Edgmon: Thank you. I really look forward to further conversations, and I encourage everyone to call my office. A lot of you out there have my personal cell number; I'm happy to talk at any time. And I'd also say that we send out an electronic newsletter every Friday, and so if you're not on that list, please reach out and we'll get you on it.
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