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Fuzzy School Math, Working to Change The Controversial Office Account Policy, More


Dear Friends and Neighbors:


This week I and others filed legislation to stop a third year of damaging school staff cuts. Cutting staff and teachers when we want our children to reach their fullest potential harms educational achievement. Cutting career and guidance counselors, and special education staff, increases the chances children won’t succeed.

And I really don’t need a new office account policy that puts money intended primarily for office expenses into my retirement account as compensation. Because of some confusing legal advice, some legislators – and the ones I know didn’t intend to do anything wrong – chose a system that says our office expenses will be sent to legislators in a taxed check. I voted against that policy in an informal poll the committee that sets this policy sent out. More on this below.

Fuzzy Education Math.... That Hurts Our Kids

Here’s where the Fuzzy Math comes in. Funding to schools for staff, course enhancement, and increased achievement has been flat the last three years, and the Governor proposes flat funding again. As a result education funding has fallen roughly 7% behind inflation. That’s why Anchorage has reduced teacher positions in past years and will lay off 215 counselors, support staff and others next year. It’s why class sizes will increase again in Juneau, and why staff and teachers have been cut in the Kenai and other areas.

So why does the Governor reject this evidence, state that funding has gone up, and claim he has funded “record increases”? Well, let’s talk a little about spin here.

Les with former Constitutional Convention clerk and friend Katie Hurley

Les with former Constitutional Convention clerk and friend Katie Hurley

We passed legislation roughly five years ago, that I voted for, that helps fund the shortfall in the teacher’s retirement fund, which, like the state’s public employees’ retirement system, was vastly underfunded when I became a legislator because of periodic poor stock market performance and the sheer size of the debt itself. That money has gone up under the formula we passed and we have been putting funds into those trusts to protect the retirement funds promised to future retirees. But none of that money can be used to hire teachers, staff, or improve curriculum. It must go into a trust for retirees. So, while “spending” has gone up, money schools are allowed to use for children, in the classroom, and for staff has fallen in real dollars by roughly 7% over the last three years and under the Governor’s roughly flat proposal for next year (he proposes a roughly 1% increase next year, about half the current rate of inflation).

I can’t keep letting schools cut the staff that are supposed to teach our children and help them succeed. Choosing failure and underachievement over success is the wrong way to go. So we have proposed legislation to keep school funding up with inflation, and make up for two of the last three years of inflation losses (making up for all three would be cost-prohibitive). That would avoid the cuts schools are talking about, and likely allow them to rehire lost staff.

Report: K-12 Funding per Pupil--Adjusted for Year-to-Year Equivalency

The Weird Office Expense Rule. Any Why Voters are Mad

Apparently the committee charged with establishing office account rules (Legislative Council) was given some weird legal advice last year. It led them to the conclusion that legislators would have to take the money we use for office expenses (sending you hard-copy newsletters, etc.) as “compensation” – so the federal government would tax roughly 25 percent of that amount (really – a legislature that rants against the federal government is OK with giving the feds our money?), and put some of that money into my retirement account as if it were payroll. The legislators I know will use the rest of the funds as office expenses and not pocket it. But the decision creates two problems.

One, I don’t want retirement compensation from money intended to be spent on constituents and office expenses. I have written the Legislative Affairs Agency to ask that this policy be changed, and that all money put into my retirement account be taken out, and have been trying to get them to change this policy with e-mails since December. I have spoken to legislators on that committee. The state statute governing office expenses states that these funds should be used, well, for office and related expenses. Not compensation for legislators.

Second, some of us will get a tax refund next year. Some of that refund will be from the office account tax withholding that occurred this year. I don’t know how to figure out how much of my tax refund next year will come from this, but I don’t want money as compensation from a tax refund next year.

The other option offered to the committee was to do something I have done since I’ve been a legislator. This option lets the Legislative Affairs Agency hold our office account funds. They don’t get taxed by the feds. And if you have a truly appropriate office expense they reimburse you. I have proposed that any funds left over that aren’t spent on office expenses be sent back to the state treasury, not to legislators. I haven’t filed a bill – sometimes you get further trying to convince a committee to change a rule with one-on-one conversation – but I have written extensively to the Legislative Affairs agency, which advises that committee. No luck so far. Still, I’ve been adamant. I don’t want any of this money as compensation. And I’ve been clear about that.

Today I understand one of my democratic colleagues who is frustrated that things haven’t changed will file legislation to propose what I have proposed. I can’t blame him and will, if it looks like I’m making no headway, co-sponsor that legislation.

Finally I am working on a few bills on top of the bigger oil and gas issues we are discussing. One would enable the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation (AHFC) to provide for more housing in a way that meets good urban planning policies. Currently AHFC cannot allow non-profits or businesses in a large housing complex. Well, in most cities, building residents have a restaurant, drug store, maybe day care or other city amenities mixed in with their residential complexes. That’s good. And since these tenants pay full rent, it enables AHFC to provide more housing. Both AHFC and housing developers support this concept. We do ban the types of businesses we don’t want in residences with children, like bars, strip clubs and a few other non-attractive businesses that mothers and fathers don’t want.

And we have filed legislation to make it more likely that foster children will end up with a family foster care placement, if that’s in their best interests. It usually is. The Office of Children’s Services, or OCS, is doing a good job, but we want to make sure they do the best job possible.

My Best,

[signed] Les Gara

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