As the 22nd legislative session begins, I want to thank all the fine folks on the peninsula for their support and input. We have planned several community meetings to stay in contact. Getting your thoughts and ideas as this legislative session moves forward is important to me. I want you to know that I understand that I work for you, and together we will get more of government to shift to that understanding.
One of the first actions of the Legislature was to meet to hear Gov. Knowles deliver his annual State of the State/State of the Budget speech. The governor's proposed budget for fiscal year 2002 would increase general fund spending by more than $200 million over the 2001 budget. Also, the governor's budget would add approximately 1,000 new state employees to the payroll.
A year ago the state faced a budget shortfall of as much as $1.1 billion for the current fiscal year, but thankfully high oil prices sent the budget toward a surplus of $120 million. At this proposed rate of spending by Gov. Knowles, we would end the fiscal year with no budget surplus. The governor claims to be exercising "strong budget discipline," but this level of increase in the face of future deficits is not strong budget discipline to me. If we had approved the governor's proposals for the past five years, the future deficit would have been $700 million more than it already is. The state must live within it's means.
The High School Competency Exam and other educational issues will be on the forefront of this legislative session. As your senator, I will be seeking ways to improve the quality of our educational system. I feel the intent of the competency exam is not to cause the students to feel defeated but to help them. Setting qualifying levels, gearing up intervention and remediation strategies, easing into testing vs. jumping into it for next year, are some of the issues our legislative session will be addressing. I am a parent and a grandparent myself and like you I want my family's education to prepare them for a productive future. Education is very important to me. Our children are entitled to a solid and constructive learning program.
My office has received several calls regarding road conditions. Potholes have turned into craters especially out Nikiski way. If you see any road maintenance problems please report them to the Department of Transportation. There are two local numbers available for the peninsula residents. For the Soldotna/Kenai station, call 262-2199. If you live in Nikiski, call that station at 776-8751.
The BP Gas-to-Liquid demonstration plant is under construction in Nikiski. It is being built to test potential breakthrough gas-to-liquid technology, which is designed to convert methane gas into synthetic crude oil. A tentative demonstration will begin the second quarter in 2002. This has been and will continue to be great news for our community. The project workforce will peak between 150 and 200 jobs. We are also continuing to work diligently on the natural gas pipeline to ensure a route that will benefit Alaskans.
I will continue to work closely with Mayor Dale Bagley and the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly on the possibility of a 900-bed medium security prison on the peninsula. This project could mean a major economic boost to the peninsula in construction and new permanent jobs.
Recently I introduced Senate Bill 44 and 45 which proposes creating an authority to design and build the Knik Arm Crossing. When Congressman Don Young was elected to chair the U.S. House Transportation Committee, he announced two priorities that he would be working on. One was to provide federal funds to build the Knik Arm Crossing.
The Alaska Toll Bridge and Causeway Authority created in SB 44 and 45 would oversee the use of federal funds appropriated for this project. The proposed legislation would appropriate $1 million in state general funds to form the authority and to design a crossing that will span Cook Inlet from the port of Anchorage to Point McKenzie. Eighty percent of the construction costs could be covered by federal funds.
The Causeway Authority could issue transportation bonds to cover up to 20 percent of the costs and collect tolls to repay the bonds. I first introduced this legislation during the 13th Legislature. Now, with Congressman Young's leadership and the help of our fine U.S. senators, we can finally look forward to crossing the Knik Arm.
A similar project, which would put a bridge across Turnagain Arm, has been proposed for years. I would greatly appreciate your input to see how much interest there is in pursuing this idea. I realize this idea has been talked about for years but now is a once in a lifetime opportunity with our congressional delegation in the position to assist us for the future development of our state.
For the next two years I will be serving as vice chairman of Senate Finance, vice chairman of Transportation, member of the Health, Education and Social Services Committee, as well as the Budget and Audit Committee, and the Committee on Committees.
Please feel free to contact me with your comments and ideas. You can call me anytime at 283-7996. I also want to invite you to our constituent teleconference meetings. The first teleconference will be on Jan. 25 from 6 to 7 p.m. at the Legislative Information Offices (LIO). If you can't attend, call in to the teleconference operator from your home or office at 1-888-363-1555. We will have these meetings the second and fourth Thursdays of each month. Another way to contact me is through a public opinion message (POM). You can file a POM through the LIO (283-2030), and they will send it directly to me.
Thanks for the opportunity you have given me to once again serve you.
Jerry Ward is second-term senator serving South Anchorage, Kenai, Nikiski and parts of K-Beach.
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