Homer area residents were restless to say the least on Saturday while they attended a town hall put on by Rep. Sarah Vance (R-Homer) at Kachemak Bay Campus. They asked questions out of turn, spoke over one another, interrupted Vance and in some cases shouted at her during the tense, two-hour event.
They wanted answers to questions about the deep cuts Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposed budget would make to public services — answers the freshman representative said she doesn’t have because the Alaska House is only just starting its work of examining the proposed budget. The House took a record number of 31 days to elect a leader and get organized, something Vance said she was just as frustrated about as her constituents.
Hundreds of people showed up to speak with Vance at the meeting in a large classroom in Pioneer Hall. Those who didn’t get there early enough spilled out of the room on the upper floor and into the lobby. Many of them were there to talk about funding for public education.
“Our schools are the lifeblood of our community,” said Mike Illg, a member of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education.
Illg told Vance it’s likely the school district will have to cut sports, school pools, school theaters and more under the proposed budget.
Several people who spoke about education warned that, if it’s cut as drastically as is proposed in Dunleavy’s budget, the state will just end up having to funnel more money into prisons and public safety later on.
Todd Hindman, principal of Fireweed Academy, said his school would be in a unique position if the proposed cuts to education went through. Because Fireweed is a public charter school, Hindman said the school is in control of its own budget. However, that also means the school can’t share any of its costs throughout the rest of the school district.
“A 20 percent cut would mean a $340,000 reduction in our funding equal to three, to three and a half certified teachers,” he said. “We only have seven certified teachers serving 120 kids. We can’t take that impact on our budget.”
Hindman warned that if schools suffer under budget cuts, the rest of the community they serve will also suffer, because one of the first things families look at when considering where to move is the quality of local schools. This will lead to a negative feedback loop, he said.
Several students from both Homer High School and Kachemak Bay Campus spoke to the same issue. Sophie Morin, a junior at Homer High, said local students are the people who will go on to seek jobs within the state and contribute back to Alaska.
“If we don’t get proper funding for a proper education, there is not much here for us,” she said. “… Without a well educated public, where are we going to be?”
Homer High senior Anna Bock echoed these sentiments. A participant in JumpStart classes through KBC that allow high school students to take college classes, she already has several college credits racked up. She said this helpful way for people to reach higher education will be gone under the proposed cuts.
“We want to come back,” he said of the prospect of going out of state for school. “So give us something to come back to.”
Jesse Roach, another Homer senior, said he’s spent most of him life in Alaska communities where his mom taught special education. Recently though, she spent six years living and going to school in Oklahoma.
“The Oklahoma schools had been gouged for money,” he said. “And if you take away education, there is no development. That is what I have seen with my eyes. … There are no educated people to make the development.”
The textbooks at his old school still listed George. W. Bush as the current president, Roach said.
“I don’t want to see anything like that here,” he said. “This is how it starts, with these cuts to a functioning school system.”
During discussion of the education budget, Vance appeared to get emotional, holding back tears as she thanked the people at the town hall representing the education sector. She reminded the crowd that she has four children who are students in the district, both through home schooling and enrolled in the public school system.
Later in the town hall, Vance came under intense scrutiny for whether she supports Dunleavy’s budget as it currently stands.
“The budget is not a take it or leave it,” she said.
“The question is, do you support this budget,” a member of the crowd countered.
“As is,” shouted out another.
“It’s a simple yes or no!” another member of the crowd shouted.
“It is not a yes or no,” Vance said. “… If it were simply a yes or no question there would be no need for a Legislature.”
Vance said she supports a balanced budget, but “not every bit of” the current budget as it’s proposed.
Another issue of contention was the fact that Dunleavy proposes paying large Permanent Fund Dividends while at the same time redirecting oil and gas property tax revenues from local municipalities to the state. Several people at the town hall said this will likely result in increased taxes on the local level. Many said they would rather pay a state income tax as an alternative, and pressed Vance on whether she would support that.
Poppy Benson said there needs to be more attention and foresight given to revenue when talking about the state budget.
“Our future budget going forward will be totally dependent on the price of oil. What kind of stability is that for a budget?” she said. “We have to come up with some other sources of revenue. … Every other state in the union pays for their state government. They do not have a sugar daddy. We’ve had one for 30 years — it’s been wonderful. But the sugar daddy is 50 years old and isn’t paying out too well anymore.”
Meg Mitchell said the proposed budget makes it feel like the governor is trying to divest major services in the state.
“It’s almost as if he wants people to start moving out,” she said. “… Now is the time to get really creative. And we’re going to be another economic experiment, (whatever) the Legislature gets figured out for this economy. … You don’t have to hold on to the PFD like it’s some sort of god-given entitlement.”
Mitchell pointed out that she’s received all the PFDs the state has given out except for one.
Vance referenced a proposal by Dunleavy to amend Alaska’s constitution so that any change to state taxes would have to go before a vote of the people. Under this model, she said, the residents of the state could have more say over whether or not they are willing to impose an income tax, something several people at the forum pointed out would target out-of-state workers.
At the close of the town hall, Vance thanked both Kachemak Bay Campus for hosting the meeting and public radio station KBBI for broadcasting it live for those who couldn’t attend. If the governor’s proposed budget passes unaltered, state funding for public broadcasting would be completely eliminated, and cuts to the University of Alaska system could prompt satellite campus closures. KBC is a branch of Kenai Peninsula College, which is under the University of Alaska system.