Last ditch attempt to return Alaska teacher, public employee pensions fails on Senate floor

By: Claire Stremple, Alaska Beacon

Sen. Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, speaks on a pension amendment Tuesday, May 14, 2024. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

A late-session attempt to salvage a proposal that would revive public employee pensions in Alaska died on Tuesday. A simple bill aimed at attracting and retaining more teachers briefly became a vehicle to get the Senate-approved pension program to the House floor.

The Senate approved a pension bill in January that didn’t advance in the House, and there hasn’t been a public sign that the House majority has had a change of heart.

Senate Majority Leader Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage and the pension bill’s sponsor, introduced the bill’s language as a 52-page amendment to the education bill. The Senate narrowly approved the addition, but Giessel rescinded the amendment after a break.

“It didn’t seem that it was going to make for a productive end to the session,” she said on Tuesday evening after the Senate gaveled out for the day.

Her proposal for a “defined benefit” retirement system has long been a priority of unions and many lawmakers who see it as a means to address high vacancy rates for state jobs.

She said the chance that the pension reboot becomes law this year is “probably zero — but that doesn’t mean it’s not a critical issue, especially for our workforce.”

The reversal came after pushback from the Senate’s pension bill opponents.

Sen. James Kaufman, R-Anchorage, opposed the amendment because he thought it threatened the education bill, which he supports. “The only thing it achieves is crushing the underlying bill,” he said.

House Bill 230 would allow teachers interested in Alaska careers to be compensated for more of their previous experience by eliminating a cap on how many years of out-of-state teaching would be considered when setting salaries.

Rep. Rebecca Himschoot, I-Sitka, proposed the bill. She said the cap is a potential barrier to attracting teaching talent to the state.

Members of the Senate added language that allows an increase in the number of consecutive days a retired teacher may work as a substitute, a change Senate Education Committee Chair Löki Tobin said is crucial to dealing with the state’s teacher shortage because it would allow districts to use qualified teachers while they find permanent hires. There were more than 500 vacant teaching positions at the beginning of this school year.

Lawmakers also approved incentives for teachers with national board certification, an amendment that mirrors a proposal from Sen. Jesse Bjorkman, R-Nikiski.

Töbin urged support for the bill. “It empowers school districts to compete for teachers who are coming from out of state. There’s a growing body of evidence that shows that good and experienced teachers increase student achievement,” she said.

Senators passed the bill with unanimous support; it returns to the House for agreement on the changes.