Residents send legislators to Juneau with words of advice
Chugiak-Eagle River legislators asked for an earful and got one Tuesday night, hearing from constituents on everything from the state budget gap to the ruts in local highways during a town hall meeting at the Eagle River Town Center.
“We are here to listen to you,” said Sen. Anna MacKinnon, who along with Sen.-elect Shelley Hughes, Rep. Lora Reinbold and Rep. Cathy Tilton attended the meeting.
Many of the participants spoke in favor of cuts to government in lieu of new taxes or spending from the Alaska Permanent Fund.
“When my employer runs out of money, I get laid off,” said Jeremy Holloway, one of several people who said legislators need to cut government spending.
Lynn Willis said he’d like to see legislators cut excess spending like government junkets and lavish meals.
“It’s hard to support these efforts of yours when I start hearing about this stuff,” he said.
MacKinnon – who co-chairs the Senate Finance Committee – said it’s not quite as simple as just cutting the fat. She said the Senate majority she belongs to is proposing $750 million in cuts over three years, but that those won’t be enough to fill the gap.
“We will do everything we can to propose cuts,” she said.
All four women said they favor spending cuts as a first step toward cutting the state’s estimated $2.7 billion budget deficit.
The fifth member of the area’s delegation, Rep. Dan Saddler, had travel issues in Haines and wasn’t able to make the meeting.
MacKinnon said all state departments will be considered and all possible revenue options explored.
“Nothing is off the table,” she said.
Hughes said she believes education reform can help cut expenses, and said she’s not afraid to say so in Juneau.
“I can take the heat from the NEA,” she said.
Hughes thinks the education budget could potentially benefit from consolidating school districts and using technology to create virtual classrooms, perhaps utilizing instructional aides in rural Alaska to help teach “hundreds of students at the same time.”
She also said she thinks boarding schools could help consolidate education in rural Alaska.
One member of the public who agreed with that idea was George Owletuck, who thinks regional boarding schools could help rural students who continue to lag behind their urban counterparts in education.
“We’re still underperforming,” he said.
Owletuck also believes the state could save money by purchasing in-state produce or consolidating the University of Alaska system.
Rep. Reinbold said she thinks the state has plenty of room left to cut.
“We have a massive amount of bloated government in this state,” she said.
Reinbold said she’s hopeful the new administration in Washington D.C. will be more favorable to Alaska’s interests when it comes to resource development.
“We have to create an attractive place to do business and responsibly develop our resources,” she said.
MacKinnon suggested the Senate’s planned cuts are a start, but some new revenues are needed. She said she’s highly opposed to an income tax, but suggested some tax credits could be more closely looked at.
Hughes said she favors what she called “the ISER/Goldsmith” plan, which she said would use some of the Permanent Fund’s earnings reserve account and a combination of new oil revenue and government cuts. If the state must impose a tax, she said she believes a sales tax is more equitable than an income tax.
“Everyone has skin in the game,” she said.
Tilton also said she preferred a sales tax to an income tax, but said she’s hopeful health care reforms can go a long way toward returning Alaska to the black.
“We can’t do business as usual,” she said.
Art Isham said he believes the state can’t solve its problems through cutting alone, and he thinks cutting the Permanent Fund dividend to pay for state government was a regressive tax that unfairly punished the poor. He’d like to see an income tax imposed.
“That spreads the cost of operating the government among the people that have more money,” he said.
Isham said he knows that’s not a popular idea, but thinks residents need to pony up.
“We can’t cut ourselves to prosperity,” he said.
Other members of the public who commented brought up their opposition to SB 91, a criminal justice reform bill passed last session that’s been blamed for a host of crimes in Southcentral. Reinbold said her opposition to the bill remains staunch.
“I think we’ve gone way too soft on crime,” said Reinbold.
However, MacKinnon pointed out that only half of the bill has been implemented, and said the legislature will continue to look at how it’s impacting the public and how it’s perceived.
As the meeting drew to a close, former longtime area state senator Fred Dyson stood to share a few words. Dyson mostly steered clear of politics, instead praising the legislators for serving their communities and urging them to keep the state’s priorities in mind.
“Take care of the roof and foundation,” said the mechanical engineer.
Dyson said the upcoming legislative session will be bruising for all involved – legislators and constituents alike – but said all would be wise to treat others with respect during the upcoming debates and budget battles.
“We need to have some grace for one another,” he said.
Though that tone resonated with the room, MacKinnon finished the meeting on a more pragmatic note.
“It’s going to be a rough session,” she said.