Legislators look for answers to continued working-age population loss

As the Alaska Legislature gets back to work in Juneau, the state population is on the minds of lawmakers.

For the 11th consecutive year, more people moved out of Alaska than moved into it, according to new estimates published last week by the Alaska Department of Labor.

Though new births over the past year counterbalanced the losses, the state’s population growth was a meager 0.04%, demographers estimate. The state’s new estimated population, 736,812, is below what it was in 2012.

While the trend has been building for more than a decade, the number of lawmakers calling for swift and major action has grown, and a variety of proposals are now circulating in the Capitol.

“It’s just interesting this year how, regardless of whether it’s cost of living, energy costs, schools, everybody’s bringing up that population loss,” said Fairbanks Rep. Will Stapp.

“I think it’s been finally recognized,” said Senate Majority Leader Cathy Giessel, of Anchorage. “You know the old analogy: ‘How do you boil a frog?’ You turn up the heat slowly. And then finally, the frog realizes, ‘Oh, no, I’m cooked.’ I think that’s kind of what’s happened.”

Speaker of the House Cathy Tilton, from Wasilla, said, “The No. 1 priority here for our caucus will be to figure out how we reduce the cost of energy all across Alaska.”

Senate President Gary Stevens, from Kodiak, said increased education funding is the No. 1 priority of the Senate’s bipartisan majority. More funding will result in better schools, he and others suggested. “We have put education at the very top,” he said.

Members of the predominantly Democratic minority in the House have also called education funding part of the answer. “This is a crisis, an absolute crisis,” said House Minority Leader Calvin Schrage, of Anchorage.

Giessel said the lack of a pension program for state employees is deterring people from moving to the state to take state jobs, and the revival of the pension is the majority’s No. 2 priority.

She and others said they’re particularly alarmed by the decline in the state’s working-age population, the number of residents between 18 and 64 years old. That’s fallen from more than 480,000 in 2013 to about 450,000 today.

“If we have aspirations … we need to have qualified workforce here,” Giessel said. “These are the folks that are leaving, that are being recruited to other states.”

Stapp, a member of the House majority, said that with so many ideas floating around, there’s a big unanswered question.

“Everyone kind of agrees on the issue: We’re seeing outmigration in our state. We’re even going to agree on a lot of the reasons why that’s happening. So the problem is, when it comes to it, what are you going to do about it?”

The Alaska Beacon is an independent, donor-funded news organization. Alaskabeacon.com.


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