Governor Sean Parnell began his State of the State address Wednesday by calling on lawmakers to let the state take ownership of its natural gas and oil resources before transitioning into an ambitious agenda on education.
“I want each of each of us to climb out of whichever trench we're in, and declare that 2014 will be the education session,” Parnell said.
He proposed sweeping changes to the state’s education system in his speech, from abolishing the high school exit exam to endorsing a constitutional amendment to the section that bars the use of public money for the direct benefit of private and religious educational institutions.
Parnell claimed the change would give parents more choice in where to send their kids to school.
"The education spending must have a valid secular purpose. The aide must go to parents and not the schools.”
In the democratic response, the new Senate Minority Leader Hollis French (D-Anchorage) called that proposal a scheme to introduce school vouchers into the state.
"Diverting public money to private schools simply continues to deprive our public schools of the resources they need to do their job," French said.
Financially, Parnell said it was time to tackle the state's nearly $12 billion pension deficit, repeating his pitch for transferring $3 billion from savings toward addressing the unfunded pension liability.
He said doing so would allow the state to reduce its annual escalating payment, on a pace to top $1 billion before dropping to about $500 million a year. Parnell said the plan would dramatically drop future operating budgets and put the state on a more sustainable financial path.
The governor also touched on energy reforms in his speech, saying he will not let the state assume too much risk when negotiating with private companies who want to buy into the natural gas pipeline approved by the legislature last year.
"For the Alaska LNG project, we will insist on terms that any partner would enjoy in any traditional commercial agreement,” Parnell said.
"Our approach to the gas line is extremely simple,” French said, responding to the LNG project. “Gas line, yes. Give away, no."
French said a good gas line deal must be structured to last for the next 50 years to allow access for new oil and gas companies that want to invest in Alaska.
With the dawn of a new session, and the issues laid out on the table, the focus now shifts to how the legislature will react to the governor's agenda.
KTUU's Matthew Smith contributed reporting to this story.