- Associated Press - Monday, April 20, 2015

Here is a sampling of editorial opinions from Alaska newspapers:

April 17, 2015

Ketchikan Daily News: The little cog

A piece of equipment at the Klawock Airport serves as a small reminder of an important function of government.

A National Weather Service meter at the Klawock Airport measures visibility, determining when flights can operate under visual flight rules or must operate with instrument flight rules.

The meter has malfunctioned at various times this month. The situation has prompted concerns from the two air carriers that provide service to the Klawock Airport. When the equipment malfunctions, the air carriers’ IFR-equipped aircraft must operate under VFR rules, limiting their service to periods of clear weather.

Given Southeast Alaska weather, that’s a significant limitation, especially for an airport that sees about 200 medevac flights per year.

The National Weather Service, to its credit, has sent technicians to the site after each malfunction of the meter, which has been operational 99.6 percent of the time since 1998.

The other 0.4 percent of the time is when the meter is noticed. If it doesn’t work, perhaps flights can’t operate. Lives are affected.

It’s that way with most infrastructure. Roads, power, water, sewer, you name it, if a piece of infrastructure is in good operational condition, it helps facilitate everyday life and commerce.

The building and maintenance of most infrastructure in these United States is a function of government. It’s important to choose infrastructure projects wisely, build them economically, and commit to their proper maintenance once in place.

This isn’t a theme often heard in political campaigns. Infrastructure, if mentioned at all by the political class, is cast largely in terms of megaprojects such as gas pipelines.

But it’s the smaller things, even a meter at a rural airport, that are important to most folks’ daily lives. We appreciate when governments focus on this basic function, ensuring that our infrastructure continues to work for us all.


April 19, 2015

Juneau Empire: Can Juneau still afford all its schools?

In 2008 when Thunder Mountain High School opened its doors to students, many in Juneau questioned if the city needed two high schools. Today, we wonder not IF Juneau needs two high schools but HOW it will continue to pay for both.

Every time the Juneau School District thought it had a handle on next year’s budget, a new wrench was tossed into the gears. First it was Gov. Bill Walker’s $32 million reduction. While districts statewide were reeling from the news that a one-time funding boost promised in 2014 would be slashed, the Senate dropped another hammer by cutting an additional $48 million.

JSD Superintendent Mark Miller presented three budget scenarios to the Juneau Board of Education earlier this year, essentially outlining the good, bad and ugly of what capital city schools might expect in 2015-16. No one thought public education would be as hard hit as what we’re now seeing. None of us saw oil prices halved in just a few months, either.

Following the Senate’s reduction to education funding, JSD must cut an additional $2 million from its budget. Following five years of reductions, we’re not sure what’s left for the chopping block. The fat was trimmed years ago - now we’re hacking off limbs and parting with organs.

Despite the massive cuts in education funding, which locally would mean increasing class sizes to about 30 students in middle and high schools, it’s not this year’s budget that scares us most. That would be next year’s cuts, which are all but guaranteed when the Legislature convenes in 2016 and finds that oil hasn’t rebounded to summer 2014 prices.

This year’s reductions hurt; next year’s will be torture. What will our school district do when that happens? We’re well past simply striking line items from the budget.

The solution should be to cut buildings, not teachers.

The Empire in the past has avoided getting into the two high school debate because it was a non-issue until now. We know many in Juneau have had a bad taste in their mouth from the moment cement was poured at Thunder Mountain. Reasons range from the cost overage during construction to dividing Juneau’s sports teams, and many other reasons in between.

In light of this year’s cuts and those that will come, it’s time to consolidate into one high school, and the school left standing should be Thunder Mountain. It’s newer, has a larger student body and is closer to facilities like the turf field, aquatic center and new library. Many of you will call this blasphemy, just as those living in Douglas said in 1955 when its high school merged with the one across the channel to create JDHS.

It’s expected to cost $329,540 next school year to keep JDHS lit and heated; for TMHS the cost is $349,530. Add maintenance, Internet, bussing and all the duplicated positions that come with running two separate facilities, and the costs mount during a time when the student population is stagnant at best (JSD has 300 fewer student total than it did in 2008, and we expect to see the student body shrink further once government layoffs hit in July and some former state employees take their families elsewhere to find work).

Here’s an outside-the-box solution to chew on: TMHS could fit about 1,000 students max, not enough to account for the 612 students at JDHS, 688 at TMHS and 85 at Yaakoosge Daakahidi. But it could squeeze in grades 10-12, allowing one of the elementary schools to be converted into a freshman academy, allowing resources and perhaps even some teachers to be shared. District lines could then be redrawn for the remaining elementary schools. Option B: middle school could hold grades 7-9, and elementary schools could become K-6, which is common in many places.

But what about JDHS?

The City and Borough of Juneau has been looking to consolidate its offices for some time, and JDHS is large enough to accomplish just that. The location would be as accessible as the current space.

But what about the current city offices?

Convert them to affordable housing or sell the buildings and land so a private developer can. The readjustment would solve two issues at once.

We know many of you will hate this idea, and we understand why. We hate it as well. We hate that we’re forced to make it. We’re sure there are other, better ideas out there. Still, we must do something and quickly. The reality of our fiscal climate will make the decision for us soon enough if we fail to be proactive. Residents can rally, protest and write letters to their hearts’ content, but lawmakers are trying to balance a fiscal gap of nearly $4 billion. There is no money to add back, nor will there be any time soon. It’s up to us to accept the economic reality and find solutions that allow us to live within our means, as meager as they might be over the next few years.

Our school district is in trouble. Sports teams and activities will struggle to raise funds, classes will become more crowded and electives will disappear. We can’t afford two of everything any more. Perhaps we never could.

Any large, sweeping changes will take time, likely years, to implement. We must begin having this conversation now while there are still options available, or we can start tossing life preservers overboard in a futile attempt to keep the ship from sinking quicker than it is.


April 19, 2015

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: Legislature should listen on Medicaid

The expansion of Medicaid to cover the thousands of Alaskans in the “doughnut hole” of low income between existing Medicaid coverage and subsidies under the federal Affordable Care Act has long been popular in Alaska despite its association with a president with low approval in the Last Frontier. It was one of Gov. Bill Walker’s most successful issues in his campaign against former Gov. Sean Parnell. A recent poll found support of both the governor and Medicaid expansion surpass 60 percent among Alaska residents. Yet the Legislature is so opposed to passing Medicaid expansion - and accepting the great sum of federal help with medical costs that come along with it - that Gov. Walker is already openly talking about calling legislators back into a special session to deal with the issue. It’s unusual for elected representatives to be so far out of step with the will of the people.

Since January, the tide of calls and letters to legislators has been coming in encouraging the expansion of Medicaid to cover those who aren’t covered under the Affordable Care Act but who have slightly too much income to qualify under existing limits. Those Alaskans, who earn less than $20,000 per year, are clearly unable to afford even basic coverage. Communications to legislators on the proposed expansion have strongly favored the plan. In a now-infamous email sent to conservative activists earlier this month, Rep. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River, admitted she and other legislators were receiving about 30 pro-expansion communications for every letter or call in opposition.

Rep. Reinbold’s response to the tide of public sentiment, sadly, was not to consider what the many Alaskans writing and calling to support expansion had to say but to write to others who opposed the changes to Medicaid to urge them to step up their calls to committees hearing legislation. “We are trying not to get the number out to pro expansion for they are much more organized so give the number out cautiously,” her email read, urging recipients not to share the number on Facebook, where pro-expansion Alaskans might see.

What makes the Legislature’s opposition to Medicaid expansion harder to understand is its clear benefit to the state, as the costs of expansion are borne entirely by the federal government through 2016. The federal share of costs slowly declines to 90 percent by 2020 and remains at that level thereafter. If the federal government were to back off from that level of funding, Alaska would be free under Gov. Walker’s plan to end its participation in the expansion. Estimates by the state Department of Health and Social Services indicate the federal investment would result in $1.2 billion in salaries and benefits to Alaska residents in the next five years, an economic boost the state could surely use.

Legislators opposed to the expansion say because of the state’s eventual 10 percent reimbursement for the expansion, the state will end out paying millions of dollars for care to residents. This claim ignores the fact that Alaskans are already paying the full cost of that care indirectly - when uninsured people show up for care now, they aren’t turned away; rather, the costs of their care get rolled into higher premiums for the rest of us fortunate enough to be able to afford coverage. Wouldn’t it be better to have the federal government repaying Alaska for the vast majority of those costs?

Throughout the legislative session and in rallies across the state last week, Alaskans have clearly and repeatedly expressed their desire for expansion of Medicaid. It shouldn’t take a special session to convince lawmakers they mean business. It’s time for legislators to listen.

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