Alaska Senate passes bill to pay for essential and laid-off workers to attend college

A man in a suit and tie stands behind a plexiglass barrier.
Sen. Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, speaks in favor of Senate Bill 10 on Monday, May 17, 2021, in the Capitol. The bill would pay tuition for Alaskans who were employed as essential workers or laid off at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. (KTOO 360TV)

The state Senate passed a bill Monday that would pay university tuition for Alaskans who were employed as essential workers or were laid off when the federal COVID-19 emergency began. 

Senate Bill 10 would provide up to $10 million through the end of 2024 for people to attend Alaska colleges or other state-certified postsecondary programs. Funding would come from the state’s share of federal American Rescue Plan Act money. Students would have to apply for grants by the end of this year. 

Sen. Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, sponsored the bill. He said it’s in thanks to those who put themselves at risk during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Folks lost opportunity during this pandemic,” he said. “They lost work. They lost their health. I’m urging a yes vote in support of those frontline workers — and those who’ve suffered, whether from the pandemic directly or from loss of employment.”

Begich noted people with college degrees are paid more on average than those without. 

“It’s about giving those who’ve given up so much during the pandemic something that could be life-changing,” he said. “The path to a successful democracy is an educated public.”

Sen. Natasha von Imhof, R-Anchorage, voted for the bill. She said it’s a form of investment in Alaska. She emphasized being able to use the federal pandemic aid was appropriate, and would avoid spending other state money.

Palmer Republican Sen. Shelley Hughes voted against the bill. She said the money could be spent for a better purpose. 

“Even though it’s going to be paid by all federal aid … that seems good, but those are all public tax dollars,” she said.

The Senate ultimately passed the bill 12 to 7. All seven Democrats voted for it, as did Republican Sens. Click Bishop of Fairbanks, Josh Revak of Anchorage, Bert Stedman of Sitka, Gary Stevens of Kodiak and von Imhof. The other Republicans voted against it, except for Sen. Mia Costello of Anchorage, who was absent.

The bill now goes to the House of Representatives. If the House passes it, Gov. Mike Dunleavy would decide whether to sign it or veto it.