Rep. Gary Knopp, R-Soldotna, speaks to constituents during a town hall at the Kenai Visitor and Cultural Center in Kenai, Alaska on Jan. 9, 2020. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)

Rep. Gary Knopp, R-Soldotna, speaks to constituents during a town hall at the Kenai Visitor and Cultural Center in Kenai, Alaska on Jan. 9, 2020. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)

Knopp hosts town hall

Kenai lawmaker discusses budget, PFD in town hall meeting.

Rep. Gary Knopp, R-Soldotna, met with central peninsula residents on Thursday to discuss his priorities for the upcoming legislative session as well as the concerns of his constituents.

During his town hall at the Kenai Visitor and Cultural Center, Knopp said that he expected this year’s session, much like last year’s, to be dominated by debates regarding the state budget and the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend.

Knopp drew a few distinctions between the 2019 session and the one set to start on Jan. 21. Knopp characterized Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposed fiscal year 2021 budget as “much less draconian” than the one he proposed last year and said that it provides a better starting point for legislators.

The main concern Knopp had with Dunleavy’s proposed budget is the fact that it draws $1.5 billion from the Constitutional Budget Reserve in order to pay out a PFD of approximately $1,600 per person. The CBR is the state’s only remaining savings account since the Statutory Budget Reserve was depleted last year. This transfer would leave about $540 million in the CBR, and Knopp said he believes the CBR should remain at a minimum of $2 billion in order to sustain the state.

“We could fund operations at flat funding today while still paying out a $600 or $700 dividend and not have to take anything out of savings,” Knopp said. “This is the nuts and bolts of where we’re at: We can either keep deficit spending, shut down government and keep paying out larger PFDs, or we can pay out what we have and not take any more from savings.”

Knopp also said he was concerned about certain smaller cuts in the governor’s proposed budget, including $450,000 from Alaska Legal Services — a 55% reduction — and the flat funding for education, which he said is still somewhat of a cut when considering inflation.

Knopp said that he and the other majority coalition members in the House met in December to determine a timeline for events in the upcoming session with the intention of finishing business in the normal 90-day time frame. Last year’s legislative session had to be extended twice, partially due to the House failing to organize within the first 30 days. Knopp said that if all goes according to their plan, the House will bring their budget to the floor on day 42 of the session this year.

After Knopp finished his presentation on the upcoming legislative session, he answered questions from about two dozen constituents who attended the meeting. The questions ranged in topic from education to public safety, including what the status is on the effort to send Alaska inmates out of state to serve their sentences. Knopp said that he and other lawmakers don’t know much at the moment and are still waiting on the Department of Corrections to give an update.

Knopp was also asked about the possibility of having a “community dividend” that is distributed to boroughs or municipalities in lieu of a personal dividend. Knopp said he was open to that conversation but didn’t believe it would be possible to provide both forms of a dividend. It would have to be one or the other, Knopp said.

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