As the first session of the 22nd Legislature comes to an end, I want to thank you for your input and support. I have worked very closely with many of you as I've sponsored bills geared to benefit the Kenai Peninsula. Your needs, ideas and concerns have played the essential role in determining what issues I've been involved with.
Here are some of the highlights for this session:
Education of our youth is a top priority. Serving as a member of the Health, Education and Social Services (HESS) Committee and as vice chair of Finance I've been involved in many in-depth studies regarding education this session.
* I've been pushing for additional funding for education by supporting an increase in the foundational formula as well as looking for alternative methods to increase funding for the future. I would like to establish an education fund and a land endowment of five million acres for public education (SB 188). This bill is currently in the Resource Committee and will be re-addressed next session.
* The High School Graduation Qualifying Exam has been a hot topic this session. SB 133, sponsored by the Senate HESS Committee, passed the Senate and is currently in the House of Representatives. A decision needs to be made before session ends on Tuesday. Under this legislation all three parts of the exam will still be given, but between now and 2004 the scores on the exam won't effect graduation. This gives the Department of Education time to refine the test while school districts work on statewide alignment of their curriculum. Starting in 2004 passing scores will be required for graduation. Students who are certified in Special Education and who are not able to pass the test, will have testing options set up by their IEP team. Work is continuing on this legislation.
This session the Legislature has been dealing with youth and adult correctional facility needs. Statewide there is the recognition that we need to build new facilities and add on to existing facilities to promote rehabilitation and re-integration.
* Kenai Youth Detention Facility (SB 150): One of the top priorities for the Finance Committee this year was addressing the problems of at-risk youth and juvenile crime. I'm pleased to announce that I, as vice chair of Finance, was able to speak up for the needs of the Kenai Peninsula. An appropriation of $4.6 million was placed, at my request, in the state of Alaska's Fiscal Year 2002 Capital Budget for the construction of our Kenai Youth Detention Facility. A local facility is critical to the rehabilitation and re-integration of the youth back in to the community. Like many of you, I'm pleased that this project, which is so important to Kenai Peninsula residents, is going to become a reality! The capital budget is now being considered in the House. By the end of session, we will know if there are any changes to the budget that affect the Kenai Youth Detention Facility.
* Kenai Adult Prison: I've been working closely with Rep. Mike Chenault, Mayor Dale Bagley, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly and the Kenai Natives Association on HB 149 that would establish a private 800-bed, medium security prison on the peninsula. This project will not only be an economic boost to the community but will make it possible for our prisoners to stay in our state where the chances are higher for their rehabilitation which will help stop their criminal behavior.
Another issue I've been concerned with deals with salmon in our marketplace. We have all seen the beautiful displays of farmed salmon at fish counters or restaurant without realizing that the varying shades of pink and red were probably artificially created. Almost all farmed salmon is colored with either canthaxanthin or astaxanthin to make it the colors consumers expect after seeing wild-caught salmon. Federal regulations require the declaration of the use of these chemicals at the retail level, but this information is rarely passed on to the consumer.
In addition to coloring agents, farmed fish are often treated with antibiotics and other supplements as part of the farming process. I introduced SB 208 that would allow a person to sell or advertise wild-caught halibut or salmon as "wild," "antibiotic-free" and "dye-free." With new standards, consumers looking for fish without additives can find them. Friday this bill was passed from the Senate to the House.
Have you ever needed to place an absentee vote and couldn't figure out where and when to go? This problem has been rectified with the passing of a bill I sponsored, SB 187. The elections director is now required to provide full public notice of the location of all absentee voting stations at least 45 days before each election. All stations will be opened no more than 15 days prior to a primary, general or special election.
More tobacco settlement money needs to be used for tobacco cessation programs! This session HB 234 designates from $5 to $8 million per year to various programs to discourage the use of tobacco. HB 228 dedicates an additional $500,000 to fund tobacco cessation and prevention efforts aimed to help protect the health of young Alaskans at risk from becoming addicted to tobacco. This funding amount is an improvement from the allocations made during the past two years but I still feel we could do more.
No longer will you be required to give your Social Security number when applying for a hunting or fishing license under HB 48, legislation I co-sponsored. It has passed through the Senate and House and now is up to the governor to sign.
Thousands of veterans have faithfully served during the last 25 years, in peacetime as well as in hostile military confrontations such as Beirut, Grenada, Latin America, the Persian Gulf, Somalia and Bosnia, but are being denied veterans' home loans. We need to honor our veterans for the work they have done to serve our country. The federal government provides home loans for those who served before 1976. I feel that it is time to show respect to all veterans, regardless of when they served. I introduced Senate Joint Resolution 31 urging the 107th United States Congress to support H.R. 959 and S.97 which would change the Internal Revenue Code allowing for veterans who served after 1976 and their families to have the opportunity to receive veterans' home loans.
Serving as vice chair for both the Finance and Transportation Committees gives me the unique opportunity to study the statewide transportation needs (including the needs of our community) as well as the insight to work out ways to get the necessary funding. The Nikiski Maintenance Station is now a stand-alone separate appropriation in the budget so it
can't get closed down again; projects for re-paving Kenai Spur Highway through Nikiski are slated. We are working on passing a bill for the Knik Arm Crossing; with matching federal funds it should become a reality soon. The bill is now in Senate Finance.
It has been my honor to represent you during this first session of the 22nd Legislature. My staff and I have been working very hard to serve you during this session. Over the last few weeks the pace has been intense, with numerous extended meetings. We are looking forward to coming home and visiting with you in person. Please call me at 283-7996 if I may be of service to your or your family.
Sen. Jerry Ward is a Republican elected to the Senate in 1996. He represents Kenai, Nikiski, K-Beach Road and South Anchorage.
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