Right before Rep.-elect Sarah Vance headed to Juneau on Monday to be sworn in Jan. 15 as District 31 Representative, she held meetings last week in Homer, Anchor Point, Ninilchik and Kasilof.
Vance defeated eight-term Rep. Paul Seaton in the general election. At a meeting last Thursday at the Legislative Information Office with about 30 people, Vance announced her new chief of staff, Janet Ogan, a legislative aide with more than 20 years experience. Vance also has hired Lauren Jones of Homer to be her full-time aide.
“She will be able to help train staff and help me be effective,” Vance said of Ogan.
With four children ranging in age from preschool to high school, and her husband, Jeff Vance, working full-time, Vance said she won’t disrupt her family and move them to Juneau. Instead, she will go to Juneau alone. Her mother, Coletta Walker, will help with the children on the home front.
At the Homer meeting, Vance fielded questions and listened to concerns. People raised issues about the budget, education and crime, among others.
In response to a question from the Homer News about if she plans to join a bipartisan majority proposed by Rep. Gary Knopp, R-Soldotna, Vance said she hadn’t decided yes or no, but did say she didn’t think Knopp’s plan was “a favorable path forward.”
Republicans added one seat to their fragile majority last week when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on an election challenge by Democrat Kathryn Dodge in the House District 1 race, Fairbanks. The court upheld a one-vote victory by Republican Bart LeBon. Two Republicans who organized with last session’s bipartisan majority, Rep. Louise Stutes and Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, said they won’t join a new Republican majority, but with LeBon and Knopp the GOP has a 21-member majority. However, Knopp said he would not caucus with the other Republicans.
The Associated Press reported that Knopp has not changed his mind after the Alaska Supreme Court ruling. He said he worried about a narrow majority being able to function and that parties need to work together. Stutes and LeDoux also said they wanted to be part of some form of coalition and signed a letter with Democratic and independed colleagues from rural and coastal areas.
Vance said she’s open to working with anyone “for the betterment of Alaska.”
“I don’t care if you’re the Purple People Eater,” she said. “I’m willing to work with you if you’re going to come to the right solutions for Alaska.”
While Knopp’s plan might be workable and she’s still open to conversations about organizing a majority, Vance said, “I’m asking what’s best, not what can work. … Let’s look at the picture of what the ideal way would be for us to move forward in the Legislature.”
The goal of the Legislature should be to build trust, Vance said.
“We represent you,” she said. “If you can’t trust us to do the work for you, we’ve failed. Part of that comes with our organization.”
On questions about education, Vance cited her own children and their educational programs. Her oldest is homeschooled with the Connections Program, but also takes an art class at Homer High School. Homeschooling didn’t work out for a son now attending Paul Banks Elementary School. Another child is in a faith-based preschool program at Faith Lutheran Church.
“I believe in parent’s choice, and focusing on the education of what each individual child needs to thrive,” she said. “The more that we can have of that and the local involvement of our parents and community members with the school district I think is better.”
Homer City Council member Donna Aderhold pressed Vance on how she plans to balance the state budget.
“I’m going to be honest,” Vance said. “I haven’t looked at the budget yet. I’m going in with that — everything’s on the table.”
Gov. Mike Dunleavy has proposed a draft budget with about a $1.5 billion gap, and has laid down the position Vance follows: He will look at every item in making cuts.
Vance said she’s not looking at specific cuts, however,
“I do want to take it with great wisdom and make sure our district has a clear conversation into what that looks like and be able to set a reasonable approach to it,” she said.
Homer resident Poppy Benson told Vance she hoped there wouldn’t be deep cuts to education and the Department of Health and Social Services, two of the biggest items in the budget. Benson said she was concerned about cuts to early childhood education programs.
“We’ve got to think about quality of life in this state, and it’s going to be pretty darn ugly if we’re raising a generation of wild-ass kids whose parents are too drugged out or drunk to raise them,” Benson said.
Vance said early childhood education raises a question.
“Can we back up the conversation before the children?” Vance asked. “What are we doing that is helping to support these families and the parents to be able to provide that quality of life for these children, rather than focusing on the children after they’ve already been in that environment?”
After a majority or coalition organizes and the new Legislature is sworn in, committee assignments will be made. Vance said she doesn’t know what committees she will ask to be on, but did mention fisheries as one she wanted to have a voice on.
“There’s so many areas of concern that each one of you have mentioned,” she said. “Where’s the best place?”
Once she officially becomes District 31 Representative,Vance said her official emails will begin working. In the meantime constituents can contact the District 31 office at 907-235-2921. She plans to visit Homer during the session break in March.
“This has been good,” Vance said of the Homer meeting. “I think good for more than just me — for the rest of you to hear a lot of the questions and priorities for our communities. I’d like to have regular conversations like this.”