In a town hall meeting she billed as “Sip with Sarah” at Captain’s Coffee on Monday, Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Alaska, briefed a gathering of about 55 people on the progress so far in the Alaska Legislature. The COVID-19 pandemic was a hot topic of discussion in a mostly unmasked crowd that, if appearances could be a gauge, drank coffee and chatted at tables as if the pandemic was a distant memory.
Among the highlights, Vance:
• Reaffirmed her support for keeping rural Division of Motor Vehicle offices open, including the Homer office, but also supported private DMVs;
• Spoke against House Bill 137, a bill that would prohibit the state from closing DMVs in rural communities of 800 people or more;
• Spoke against the House Majority passing a bill to extend COVID-19 pandemic emergency declaration;
• Said she was not ready to file a companion bill to Sen. Shower’s proposal to change Alaska voting laws;
• Spoke against keeping lists of people who had or had not been vaccinated, and
• Said she felt health decisions like wearing face masks in public or getting a COVID-19 vaccine should be a private decision made in consultation with one’s physician.
Less formal and not as well attended as town halls held in the before times of the pandemic, people asked questions about the $2 billion state budget deficit and how to fill it, how to change Alaska’s constitutional right to privacy so it did not apply to abortions, and how to get Canada to let Alaskans travel freely on their way to and from the Lower 48 states.
Vance started her talk out with a perennial spring time complaint: bad roads and potholes. She acknowledged the sad state of Alaska maintained roads like East Hill Road.
“When you tell me or post that (bad roads) on Facebook, I share that with DOT (Department of Transportation and Public Facilities,” she said. “They know us well.”
On a recent closure of the Homer DMV office, Vance said that was due to employees taking sick leave. The local office has not been closed, she emphasized. Vance does not support closing rural DMVs, and pointed to her vote to oppose Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposed budget that would have shut down six small-town offices. The House Finance Committee Administration Subcommittee on which she sits voted unanimously to reject that part of the budget.
Vance had earlier said she was undecided on closing rural DMVs, but strong opposition locally and statewide made supporting their closure a stiff wind to tack against.
“When we tell Alaskans that you have to fulfill certain obligations, we need to make a reasonable effort to help you meet that requirement,” she said as to why she voted against closing rural DMVs. “… I haven’t heard of anyone (in the Legislature) who supports that measure. I am not concerned about losing our Homer DMV in the slightest.”
She also said she didn’t think the governor of this administration would close rural DMVs on his own authority. Former Department of Administration Commissioner Kelly Tshibaka had said she would honor the wishes of the Legislature.
“I’m going to hold them to that,” Vance said. “…The last thing they want is the entire Legislature mad at them.”
Regarding House Bill 137, “An Act requiring the Department of Administration to maintain and operate certain offices that provide services related to motor vehicles,” filed by Rep. Zack Fields, D-Anchorage, Vance said she opposed that approach. She didn’t like a provision that would prohibit the state from contracting with private businesses to run local DMVs.
“I don’t believe that is allowing a free market or allowing the administration in a future year the best measures for efficiency in government,” she said.
On the matter of a vote in the House to extend an emergency declaration for the pandemic, Vance voted against it.
“We’ve been in a state of emergency for about a year. I refuse to normalize a state of emergency,” she said. “I believe it’s time Alaskans move into response and recovery. I think we’re doing that really well.”
Vance mentioned something Dunleavy had told legislators recently, where he said the pandemic was in the rearview mirror.
According to Tuesday’s COVID-19 update for the Seward’s Day weekend from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, the statewide alert level remains high at high at 19.93 cases per 100,000, with the alert level in Dunleavy’s home in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough at 42.14 cases per 100,000. In contrast, the alert level for the Kenai Peninsula is at intermediate level with 6.18 cases per 100,000.
“I’m going to put you first and continue to speak that it’s time we move to response and recovery, because I want you to be able to provide for your families, build your businesses and do as best for the community here,” Vance said in opposing a state of emergency.
On the matter of COVID-19 safety, Homer High School student Emma Sulczynski, one of four people wearing face masks at the event, asked Vance about her opposition to abortion while at the same time refusing to support wearing face masks “because it is supposedly a violation of your bodily autonomy,” Sulczynski said.
“So how can you support legislation that would violate women’s bodily autonomy, forcing them to go through the invasive, dangerous and costly process of pregnancy if they’re wanting to terminate it?” she asked.
Vance agreed that she was pro-life and opposed abortion, but disagreed that she opposed masks in general.
“I’ve always said if people want to wear masks, I respect that decision,” Vance said. “The masks have never been mandated in the state, and they are not mandated here in our local area.”
As to the parallel between mask wearing and abortion, Vance said she found equating the two to be a challenge.
“I’ve never made statements opposing masks in general. Anything outside of that has been rumor,” she said. “I’m going to respect where people are on that. If someone wants to get a vaccine or anything like that, I respect that. That is doing what’s best for your own health.”