One man praised her for sticking to her campaign promise to protect a full Permanent Fund Dividend, and former Mayor Jim Hornaday thanked Vance for supporting Kenai Peninsula College and the Kachemak Bay Campus as well as senior citizens.
Before she leaves next week to Juneau for the start on Jan. 21 of the second regular session of the 31st Alaska Legislature, Vance held town hall meetings in Homer, Ninilchik, Funny River and East End Road. About 75 people attended the Jan. 11 meeting at Pioneer Hall at the Kachemak Bay Campus, Vance’s alma mater.
While some questions were pointed, most spoke respectfully. Some in the audience booed or shouted retorts at some of Vance’s comments, particularly when she said she would not support the Fair Share Tax initiative that would increase Alaska’s share of oil and gas revenues about $1 billion.
Vance acknowledged the political differences of some of her constituents.
“Now, everyone knows that we don’t see eye-to-eye on most politics here in this room, but I do want to tell you when you come to me with something that’s important to you, I still speak for you,” she said toward the end of the meeting.
Now in her second year as representative for House District 31 on the lower Kenai Peninsula, Vance won election in 2018 when she beat the 16-year incumbent Paul Seaton, a former Republican who ran as a nonpartisan. In the last session, Vance mostly aligned herself with Gov. Mike Dunleavy, such as when she went to Wasilla for a special session called by Dunleavy when other legislators went to Juneau. She billed her town hall meetings as “budget conversations,” the subject that dominated not only her discussion, but most of the questions.
Dunleavy has introduced what Vance called “a flat budget,” with no major cuts.
“The catch is the governor funded it using our savings accounts,” Vance said, referring to the Constitutional Budget Reserve, now down to $2 billion after previous Legislatures drew $14 billion out of it. The next year’s budget will take most of what’s left, Vance said.
“That’s not wise financial management,” she said. “The big question is ‘How are we going to pay for it (the budget)?’ What are we going to do? This has been a question that has been asked of Alaska for more than 20 years. There are no easy answers.”
Alaskans could see an increase in the motor fuel tax from 8 cents a gallon to 16 cents a gallon to pay for more road maintenance, as one early filed bill proposes. Vance said she thinks Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities Commissioner John MacKinnon did things like reduce road maintenance in Turnagain Pass because he wants to raise the fuel tax.
“I am generally an anti-tax person,” Vance said. “… I want to do everything to streamline, to get the most bang from our buck out of our government before I will come to you for a tax.”
Vance also reiterated her support for the historical formula in calculating Permanent Fund Dividends.
“I believe the historical formula is not broken,” she said. “It has served Alaska well for many, many years.”
She said she thinks in the next session a majority in the Legislature will attempt to change the structure of the Permanent Fund. That would affirm the approach where a limited draw on the earnings reserve account is taken, with half going to fund general government and the other half goes to PFDs. Vance said she ran on a platform to stick to a full dividend.
“I will not change my word on that,” she said.
That drew praise from Randy Arndt, a constituent who spoke at the town hall meeting.
“I’d like to thank you for standing by your guns,” he said. “You were elected. You beat an incumbent based on what you stand on. That’s rare.”
Another speaker, Amy Christiansen, urged Vance to repeal Senate Bill 21, the Gov. Sean Parnell era bill that changed Alaska’s oil and gas tax structure. Patricia Cue said Alaska would gain $1 billion if an oil and gas tax reform initiative, the Fair Share Act initiative was passed.
Vance said she had concerns about that.
“A billion dollars per year that is being introduced to tax the oil companies — I think we should take a great deal of caution in taxing any industry a billion dollars a year,” Vance said.
“Why not?” one person yelled.
Vance said she’s willing to have a conversation about oil and gas tax credits as well as how corporate taxes are applied. In general, Vance said Alaskans need to have a full conversation about the budget.
“We’ve kicked the can down the road for so long we’ve run out of road, and that’s the reality,” she said.
A lot of Saturday’s discussion centered on spending for K-12 and university education spending. Vance said she’s prefiled a bill that would consolidate Alaska’s 54 school districts to 18 regional districts.
“This allows for fewer administration and overhead costs,” she said. “The regions can talk to each other about what’s better for their areas.”
Winter Marshall-Allen, the National Education Associataion American Indian and Alaska Native director, questioned that. Alaska has more than 300 Alaska Native tribes, she said.
“How is consolidating them into a bigger body so their voice is going to be muffled – how is that helping them?” Marshall-Allen asked. “… We can’t just put them under one umbrella.”
Homer’s two representatives on the Kenai Peninsula Borough School Board, Mike Illg and John “Zen” Kelly, urged Vance to support education. Illg asked Vance if she would support forward funding, where state education funding is done on a 2-year cycle so that school districts aren’t wondering what to cut at the end of the school year before the Legislature passes a budget.
“I think the entire budget should be on a 2-year, hybrid, biannual cycle,” Vance said. ” … There’s so much fear in not knowing what’s going to happen so we have this knee-jerk reaction.”
One man asked Vance about her support for university funding. He said the $25 million cut this year will mean a $1 million cut for the Kenai Peninsula College campuses that includes Kachemak Bay Campus.
“You can’t cut the head off and have the hands work,” he said.
“I think the university overall needs more reductions,” Vance said. “The community colleges and Kenai Peninsula College, no. … They’re penciling out. There isn’t much waste there.”
Arndt also spoke on that, and got applause from some for his words.
“The university is a mess,” he said. “… This is the problem. We don’t want to cut anything, or if we cut something, cut somebody else’s, not mine. The problem is everything has to be cut. That’s how it has to work.”
Vance also urged people to participate in the upcoming U.S. Census. An accurate count for Alaska is how federal money will be distributed. It also affects how House and Senate Districts will be redrawn. Vance said she thought the south Kachemak Bay communities of Seldovia and Halibut Cove should be in District 31, not District 32. The Kachemak Bay communities shop in Homer and use the hospital and other facilities, she noted.
“I think it would make sense if they would spread our border a bit to include them,” she said.
In her closing comments, Vance urged people to contact her office with concerns. Her staff member, Lauren Simpson, logs every call.
“We’re going to be able to be the community that we love and not have the tribalism so much,” Vance said. “It’s just been bumpy. If we can just engage as neighbors — What do you think about this? We don’t necessarily agree, but what about this? We’re going to get somewhere. Today has been a good example of that. We’re going to have more of that.”