Redistricting has cost Southeast one legislator this session, and voters in District 34 have made things even more interesting by sending a freshman to the House. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins will be 23-years old when he’s sworn in next Tuesday. Here’s a session preview from the state’s youngest legislator.
Listen to iFriendly audio. “I’m basically going to have my head down at the beginning, and basically watch how things go around me. I haven’t pre-filed any bills, and that’s a very intentional decision.”
Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins has spent a lot of time in Juneau recently, almost none of it devoted to setting up his office – which he wasn’t even assigned until last Friday. Instead, he’s been meeting with other members of the Democratic caucus, and looking for ways to be effective.
“I do have a list of legislative priorities, many of which I discussed during the campaign, that range from adding a ‘Frequent Floater’ system for the Marine Highway – something specific and concrete like that – to larger issues like energy independence for rural Southeast communities.”
As a freshman, Kreiss-Tomkins won’t have much clout on the floor. He’s going to try and make a difference in Juneau using skills he developed during his campaign. The biggest question mark in the governor’s budget for Sitka, for example, is the absence of funding to complete the Blue Lake Dam expansion project.
“I think it will be a question of building relationships with officials within the various agencies and divisions who influence the governor’s supplemental budget. I’ll be working hard on that, and making the case to members of the finance committee that this is a project of great importance to Sitka. Both Sen. Stedman and myself will be doing that.”
Regionally, one of the biggest issues is the governor’s unilateral decision to scale back the Alaska-class ferry project. Kreiss-Tomkins understands it was a legitimate choice of the executive branch, but he’s far from happy with it.
“There are policy decisions, and then there’s process. Regardless of the policy of scrapping the Alaska-class ferry – which the governor has effectively done – there’s the process of how you do that. I think the governor’s process about the change of course has been very concerning. There’s damning circumstantial evidence: No legislators in Southeast knew prior to the governor’s announcement, no members of MTAB (Marine Transportation Advisory Board) who supposedly advise the governor on marine transportation issues knew, nor did the shipyard until the night before. Everybody was in the dark and nobody knew it was coming. When you’re throwing two or more years of public process out the window abruptly, you can approach that in a more deliberate manner. So the process has been disappointing and concerning. Capt. Neussl’s resignation speaks to that. In a certain sense, the captain is going down with the ship.”
Kreiss-Tomkins has a seat on the Transportation Committee, which Peggy Wilson – a Republican who now represents Ketchikan – chairs. He definitely sees more common ground among Southeast legislators than differences, and believes that unity will be effective on some issues. He says he feels well-suited to the work, and is doing what he prepared for.
“I am at the service of the people. And being the voice in government for 17,000 people means being the voice and advocate for a multitude of local issues that are important and that this office has the ability to influence. It’s just as important as voting on legislation – perhaps more so. There are some great legislators in the history of Alaska – especially from rural regions – who never introduced a bill in their entire careers.”
Kreiss-Tomkins says he will have a “dynamic” office. A session staffer, an intern, and a full-time aide, Nancy Barnes, whom he hired out former Sen. Albert Kookesh’s office. Kreiss-Tomkins is young, but says he understands the value of experience.
“Prior to the legislature, she worked for governors Knowles, Hickel, and Cowper. So she’s been in the capitol, either on the third floor in the legislature, or somewhere else in that building for longer than I’ve been alive.”
Kreiss-Tomkins will have an office expense account of $16,000. He says he plans to use the money to hire policy analysts, on a case-by-case basis, and to travel in the district.
The Alaska Legislature will convene on January 15.
To hear more of this interview with first-time legislator Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, tune in SoundCheck – KCAW’s new public affairs podcast – this Friday at 8:30 AM.