In anticipation of the upcoming legislative session, Reps. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski, and Sarah Vance, R-Homer, met with constituents on Thursday in Funny River to discuss their concerns and priorities for the state.
Before delving into their goals for the 2020 legislative session, Carpenter and Vance shared their experiences and accomplishments — both as freshmen lawmakers — during the 2019 session. Both pointed to the passage of House Bill 49, which effectively repealed and replaced the controversial crime bill Senate Bill 91 and addressed many areas of criminal justice. The two lawmakers also cited last year’s reductions in the state budget as legislative successes and said they would continue the fight this year to implement cuts in spending and pay out a full statutory Alaska Permanent Fund dividend.
The town hall at the Funny River Community Center served as an informal Q&A that covered a wide range of topics, including taxation, the PFD, the location of the legislative session and the public’s involvement in government processes.
Both Carpenter and Vance said that they were in support of moving the legislative session out of Juneau and onto Alaska’s road system.
“We’re both in agreement that we would love to see the capital, or at least the Legislature, moved to the road network,” Carpenter said. “Unfortunately it is a political decision, and there are forces that don’t want to see it moved.”
Carpenter used this discussion to encourage people to utilize 360 North, which is a public broadcasting website that provides unedited live coverage of the Alaska State Legislature, in order to stay up-to-date with the various committee meetings and hearings.
Carpenter also urged his constituents to call in and voice their opinions during times when legislative committees are taking public comments and explained the importance of doing so.
“It is vital that conservative voices call in and speak up,” Carpenter said. “This is what happens: we’re sitting behind a desk, and there’s a tally mark. This person’s for it, this person’s against it. That’s all that’s happening. We’re listening, and at the end of the night we look at the tally marks and say ‘OK, this is justification for where we’re going’ … I can tell you that when we were talking about budget cuts last year, 95% of the people who were calling in were against budget cuts.”
Vance said that another way to keep tabs on the Legislature was by checking the website, akleg.gov, and added that she would be notifying her constituents over the course of the session when key issues are being discussed.
Some in attendance pointed out that not everyone has access to a computer, and Vance and Carpenter said that they would provide the relevant phone numbers for calling in to public testimonies at the end of the meeting.
Carpenter said that one of his main priorities during this session will be pushing for the constitutional spending cap that was introduced by Gov. Mike Dunleavy last year. Carpenter said that the current spending cap is inadequate for keeping state spending under control.
“Because of inflation, there is some growth (in spending) that has to happen. That’s just the reality,” Carpenter said. “But the discretionary stuff and the decisions we make on where our priorities are: capital budget versus operating budget, roads versus education, those are decisions we need to make, and there needs to be a cap on the amount of money we can spend so that we can face that conversation.”
Vance said that one of the key issues on her agenda is the proposal to draw 50% of the permanent fund’s percent of market value (POMV) to use for the state’s budget, with the other half being used to pay out the permanent fund dividend. Vance said she would oppose this effort.
“I believe that the traditional formula is not broken. It has worked well for many, many years,” Vance said. “I want you to know what is possibly coming … we need your feedback on it. I ran on a very clear platform of protecting the traditional formula. I’m not going to change on that. If you believe that is wrong, then vote me out, because I’m not going to change what I ran on and what I was elected on just because the winds are blowing differently.”
Vance said that she would be fighting to ensure that any changes to the PFD formula go to a ballot so that the people of Alaska can vote on the change.
Vance also brought up a bill that she has prefiled, House Bill 194, which would consolidate the number of school districts from 54 to 18, which Vance said would reduce administrative costs and allow better communication between regions.
“There are some school districts that only have one school in the entire district with that overhead, so that could result in substantial savings that doesn’t take from the classrooms, doesn’t take from the teachers, but allows for greater flexibility in reducing that overall cost while still providing for their needs.”
Carpenter again emphasized the importance of people calling in and participating and warned that Vance’s legislation would be heavily opposed by the House majority coalition as well as educators.
The 2020 Legislative Session begins on Jan. 21 in Juneau.