Legislature(2003 - 2004)
04/21/2004 08:43 AM House FIN
* first hearing in first committee of referral
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
HOUSE BILL NO. 379 An Act establishing an office of citizenship assistance in the Department of Labor and Workforce Development. REPRESENTATIVE BRUCE WEYHRAUCH, SPONSOR, stated that HB 379 would create an office to assist naturalized citizens and citizen candidates in Alaska. HB 379 would establish the Office of Citizenship Assistance in the Department of Labor and Workforce Development. Naturalized citizens and people who are actively pursuing United States citizenship could receive help navigating through State employment and federal immigration agencies. The Office of Citizenship Assistance would also act as a liaison between individuals, the Office of the Commissioner and State and federal agencies as well as the private sector. Under the legislation, the Office would assist in immigration services, employment services, affordable legal service, medical services, and educational opportunities. Information would be available regarding job discrimination, sexual harassment and unsafe working conditions. Representative Weyhrauch noted that Alaska has a rich history of immigration. Through the legislation, the Office would be sensitive to the diverse cultural backgrounds of those it would serve and the Office would bridge the transition of adjustment for incoming new citizens to Alaska. Representative Fate asked at this time how many citizens could use the service. He noted the fiscal impact and was concerned that the State would be assuming the "job" of the federal government. Representative Weyhrauch responded that the work of the bill would not be in doing the job of the U.S. government. He emphasized that the federal government has not been helpful with these types of issues. The federal government is the problem by continually placing impediments before these people who are attempting to get immigration status. He pointed out that they are very unresponsive, mentioning that his office has written numerous letters for six-month periods and received no response. They do not address the work in a timely manner. The proposed State agency would not be providing free legal services, immigration or naturalization. The legislation proposes an Office to facilitate discussion and communications between individuals who want to work in a free society and the situations that impede them. He stressed that the Office is intended to assist and facilitate communication in employment opportunities. That is not the work of the federal government. Representative Fate inquired if the intent was primarily to help with citizenship and/or jobs. He was concerned that it might create competition for local residents attempting to get jobs. Representative Weyhrauch acknowledged that was a possibility, however, the intent is citizenship assistance. A State employee would not be allowed to discriminate over race or color, noting that some of these people have difficulty even speaking English. Vice Chair Meyer inquired if such an office has ever existed. Representative Weyhrauch explained that Senator Kelly from Fairbanks previously introduced a bill, which went nowhere. Vice Chair Meyer understood that there had been a similar position within Legislative Affairs. Representative Weyhrauch clarified that in 2000, Senator Halford, then the Senate President, created a job service through legislative funding to help with that type of concern and at that time, the Legislature saw it as valuable. Vice Chair Meyer asked if it should be relocated in Legislative Affairs Agency and then it could be helped through Legislative influence. Representative Weyhrauch commented that placing it there would not necessarily remove the struggles of bureaucracy. The intent of the bill is to guarantee that the position is created. In response to Vice Chair Meyer's query, Representative Weyhrauch commented that it is important to have the Office as a matter of policy within State government. There is an understanding in the Executive Branch that it is important for such an agency to act in a cohesive, consistent and ongoing manner. Vice Chair Meyer agreed that the position should exist, however, thought that it should remain under legislative jurisdiction. Representative Hawker pointed out that presently, there is the State Ombudsmen's Office. He thought that the service proposed in HB 379 could be performed within that Office with the existing budget. Representative Weyhrauch responded that was possible, however, that Office does not approach the same issues addressed by the legislation. The State Ombudsmen's Office is generally staffed by an American U.S. citizen and most often deals with issues of the Executive Branch. The proposed Office would help those that need assistance with either employment or interpretive services to assist in dealing with employment problems. He acknowledged that it does have an "ombudsmen's flavor" and noted that had been considered as a potential option but it became obvious that it was different and did not fit for those specific specialized services. Representative Hawker referenced the fiscal note, which would fund one range 17 employee and office supplies. The largest line item is interpreter fees. He asked if directing the Ombudsmen's Office to undertake the mission, then instead of a $112 thousand dollar fiscal note, allocate them $24 thousand dollars for the interpreter fees and the use of their office supplies. Representative Weyhrauch noted that he did question the assumptions of the fiscal note. He recommended that the fiscal costs be directed to the Department of Labor & Workforce Development. Co-Chair Harris asked if the position had ever been seated within the Department of Labor & Workforce Development before. Representative Weyhrauch stated that the Department has worked hard to accommodate these types of issues and requested that Commissioner O'Claray address that. Representative Weyhrauch interjected that it is not just one particular nationality or group of people involved, noting that he was astonished at how many foreigners come to Alaska. Most often these people work extremely hard, sometimes having three jobs. GREG O'CLARAY, COMMISSIONER, DEPARTMENT OF LABOR, commented on the bill and requested that Mr. Bell address the fiscal concerns identified by the Committee members. GUY BELL, DIRECTOR, DIVISION OF ADMINISTRATIVE SERVICES, DEPARTMENT OF LABOR & WORKFORCE DEVELOPMENT, commented that the fiscal note had been modeled after the bill sponsored by Senator Kelly from three years ago. That note was substantially larger than the proposed note. It had two or three positions associated with it and included substantially higher travel and operating costs because it would have established offices in both Juneau and Anchorage. That note was used as the starting point. Mr. Bell reminded members that there is very restrictive use of monies that the Department receives from the federal government. The request had to become a general fund cost, as it is a special service beyond what is authorized in the federal program. It was determined that one position would be needed and located in Juneau with a limited travel budget for a few trips to Anchorage and other parts of the State, a contractual budget for basic office costs, and the interpreter service costs. He called that service a "soft" item as it is not known what services will be required. He noted the possibility that the Office might be able to find volunteers for that service. Mr. Bell thought that they could lower the interpreter service portion of the note from $24 thousand dollars to $4 thousand dollars. Mr. Bell concluded that the position would be located in the Commissioners Office on the basis that it should report directly to the Commissioner rather than a division director, given the broad range of responsibilities. Co-Chair Williams asked if the note would be reduced. Mr. Bell responded that the Department would reduce it by $20 thousand dollars. Co-Chair Harris inquired if an interpreter would be making $120 dollars an hour. Mr. Bell replied that the dollar number of the proposed note had been taken from the previous bill and the assumption was not questioned. He reiterated that it was a soft cost. Co-Chair Harris thought the bill was a good idea, noting that he would support the bill with the reduction to the fiscal note. Representative Weyhrauch inquired if the supply and furnishing dollar amount had come from the Legislative Affairs note. Mr. Bell replied that had been the Department's own internal determination for a personal computer, a printer and basic phones. The Department felt it would be appropriate to have some basic information material printed and produced and a description of services the office would offer. He added that those are the cost components that are standard when creating any type of Office. Representative Weyhrauch pointed out that there currently are desks and cubical spaces in the office buildings. He thought that since they already exist, why could they not be moved. Representative Chenault proposed that HB 379 might be special legislation. He referenced the total operating costs for FY06, which are different from what is requested in the funding source. Mr. Bell embarrassingly noted that the Department had made an addition mistake and that the cost should have been $106.1 thousand dollars. Representative Chenault indicated his support of the bill acknowledging the difficulty that these people experience. Representative Hawker referenced language indicating what the Office intends to accomplish. He asked if there already were operations in the State system that could address these concerns. Commissioner O'Claray acknowledged that each job center does offer a wide array of resources on a limited basis. The Office proposed in the legislation would be focused on particular problems. Representative Hawker pointed out that this is a statewide issue. He inquired if spreading the mission to the outline job centers throughout the State could further reduce the fiscal note. He warned that since the problem is statewide, how would the remote sites access the information. Commissioner O'Claray responded that with the installation of a fax machine and email systems, the Office could be specifically focused. Representative Hawker asked if there were federal or any other source funds available for this activity. Commissioner O'Claray replied that there are not and that the services mostly are intended to deal with Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Representative Fate asked if there were ways to identify people seeking citizenship in other areas of the State and outside of Juneau. Commissioner O'Claray replied that they could absolutely handle those cases. The bill provides additional services beyond what is normally addressed in the job centers and is intended to provide more intensive core services rather than routine employment services. MARIO LIM, JUNEAU, commented that he had been the first person who manned the Office through Legislative Affairs. He stressed that the need is enormous. There is a comradery within the minorities with a deep dislike of the white people because of how difficult things have been in the past. Mr. Lim pointed out that there is no one in the State supporting the people with these types of concerns. He pointed out that these people are also helping to support the State. He emphasized that there is an enormous need for the people that cannot speak English and as a minority, there is a tremendous amount of discrimination. He urged that the bill be adopted, as it is a statewide issue. Vice Chair Meyer asked where his work is done. Mr. Lim replied that his work is done statewide. Vice Chair Meyer questioned if the position would be better located in Anchorage where the larger population lives. Mr. Lim responded that in the age of technological assistance, the position could be located anyplace statewide. SAL LUMBA, IMMIGRATION GROUP, JUNEAU, urged support for the legislation. Representative Foster MOVED to report HB 379 out of Committee with individual recommendations and with the adjusted new fiscal note. There being NO OBJECTION, it was so ordered. HB 379 was reported out of Committee with a "do pass" recommendation and with a new fiscal impact note by the Department of Labor & Workforce Development.