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4/16/15 - Legislators back out of promised cost of living adjusment for state employees

Legislators back out of promised cost of living adjustment for state employees

By Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN

The Alaska House has narrowly passed a bill that would claw back raises for many state workers. Rep. Steve Thompson, a Fairbanks Republican, made no effort to downplay matters when he offered the legislation on the House floor on Tuesday.

House Bill 176 is a pretty short bill. But it’s a controversial bill.”

The five-line bill repeals a 2.5 percent cost-of-living adjustment for non-union public employees, which comprise about 2,000 members of the state workforce. Thompson noted the bill would save the state nearly $10 million -- equivalent to 90 jobs.

Thompson said, ”The question we must answer is:  would we rather cut more people’s jobs or keep salaries steady?”

The bill was, indeed, controversial. When it came to a vote, it momentarily looked like it was going to fail on a 20-20 split, until Palmer Republican Jim Colver changed his vote.

Most of the opposition came from Democrats. Rep. Les Gara of Anchorage noted that public employee salaries have lagged behind inflation for the past few years. And Rep. Andy Josephson of Anchorage said it was inappropriate for the state to freeze wages when it already committed to a salary schedule with a raise included.

”Fundamentally I look at this and I say:  Well, we made a promise. We’re breaching the promise. It doesn’t solve the fiscal crisis. And so, I have to be a no.” said Gara.

But opposition was not limited to Democrats. Four -- Mike Hawker of Anchorage, Wes Keller of Wasilla, Cathy Munoz of Juneau, and Gabrielle LeDoux of Anchorage -- broke ranks with the majority to oppose the bill. LeDoux explained her rationale in an 8-second floor speech.

”I feel very uncomfortable with this bill,” said LaDoux. “ I was always brought up to believe a man’s word is his bond.”

But for many Republicans, like Tammie Wilson of North Pole, the fiscal argument won out.

”It is about a $3.5 billion deficit. That’s really what it’s about,” said Wilson. “When these agreements were made a couple years ago, I don’t think there was anybody who was sitting down on those contracts who thought we would be where we are today.”

The bill may still be reconsidered by the House for another vote before being sent to the Senate. In an interview, Gov. Bill Walker said he opposes the policy.

The Legislature is also advancing a similar move that would freeze salaries for unionized employees and back out of collective bargaining agreements.

Shortly after the vote on the House bill, the Alaska State Employees Association issued a press release calling the move an “unprecedented assault on state employees.”

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Governor calls special session for confirmation of Cabinet, other appointments

Gov. Bill Walker has issued a proclamation that would force legislators to act on his appointments.

The executive proclamation comes days after legislative leadership canceled their confirmation session

All of the governor’s cabinet members and board appointments require legislative approval before the end of the session, or else the appointments are voided.

A joint session is scheduled for Friday at 10 a.m. While the legislators are obligated to convene at that time, they are not required to take an up-down vote on the individual appointments.

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Native Youth Olympics kicks off

About 500 athletes from elementary through high school will be at the Native Youth Olympics, which kicks off Thursday in Anchorage.

Organizer Nicole Johnston says participants will be coming in from all over Alaska, and one team from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, to carry on a tradition that has deep roots in Alaska Native cultures but was formally organized more than 40 years ago.

“Native Youth Olympics was started in 1971 by a group of boarding school students who had moved into the Anchorage area and wanted to keep the spirit of the games alive. What I mean by the spirit of the games is the traditions, the cultural, the heritage behind the games, the friendly competition that is seen by all spectators.”

Johnston says the games teach kids agility, endurance, strength – survival skills.

“You had to rely on your neighbor to survive as well,” said Johnston. "So these games really encourage the athletes to help each other go further, get higher, be stronger, be tougher. And that is the true essence and spirit of the games. And that's what the boarding school students had in mind.” 

Native Youth Olympics is free to the public, who can see games such as the Indian stick pull, kneel jump and wrist carry, but Johnston says a lot of people turn out for the kicking events, which are held towards the end of each day.

“[Thursday] We have the Alaskan high kick. On Friday we have the 2-foot high kick. And on Saturday we have the one foot high kick. Those are the three most popular events and crowd pleasers. 

The games begin Thursday with a grand entry at 1 o’clock. Hours are 10 to 7 on Friday, and 10 to 5 or 6 p.m. on Saturday. There will also be arts and crafts sales and information booths. That’ all at the new Alaska Airlines sports stadium at the University of Alaska Anchorage.