Sitka Democrat Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins speaking about Native language immersion schools.

Sitka Democrat Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins has pre-filed a bill that would invite artists to design an original Alaskan license plate. (KCAW photo)

The Alaska legislature gaveled in Tuesday (01-19-16), in what will be the fourth session for Representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins of House District 35, representing his hometown of Sitka, Petersburg, and 20 other rural Southeast communities. In sharing his goals for the session, Kreiss-Tomkins has a few policy ideas up his sleeve.

Downloadable audio.

Representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins has an Excel document on his computer. Its got three tiers, 94 rows, and a simple title: Good Ideas. “There’s a whole universe of good ideas out there and we just exist in that universe,” he explained.

You could say that Kreiss-Tomkins is on a mission to find good policy ideas for the state of Alaska. And he deems an idea as good based on two criteria: 1) Does it make life better and 2) Is it free of charge? He added, “My office has blinders on. We ignore ideas that cost money.”

His staff this session includes aids Reid Magdanz of Kotzebue, Berett Wilber of Sitka, and intern David Russell-Jensen of Juneau. And the Kreiss-Tomkins squad is especially interested in innovative ways to save the state money.

Last session, Kreiss-Tomkins introduced a paper reduction bill in response to what he saw as needless copies of every state agency report, required by law to be printed. His office estimates that all this printing costs the state $585,000 a year.

“Some of them cost $20 a copy. $15 a copy. They’re expensive,” Kreiss-Tomkins said. “Frankly what happens is there’s this graphic designs arms race because these reports are coming to us legislators and appropriators, the people who write budgets. So there’s this graphic design-off. Different boards and agencies create holograms and translucent paper stock and incredibly beautiful annual reports, which are not necessary.”

HB 68, which passed the House last April and will now appear before the Senate, proposes a digital alternative. Kreiss Tomkins said, “What we want to do is make the default digital, unless there’s a public interest in having a lot of printed copies because regular people actually want a paper copy. A good of example of that being Alaska Department Fish & Game booklets or DMV-related materials.”

Speaking of the DMV, Kreiss-Tomkins latest bill, HB 217 (which he prefiled for this session), puts an artistic twist on how Alaskans register for license plates. “One everyone’s car is a license plate. It’s one of the most omnipresent and ubiquitous pieces of government infrastructure. We’ve been noodling on the idea that you basically have an American Idol contest for all visual artists – drawers, painters, graphic designers – to design a license plate and make these the most beautiful license plates in Alaska,” Kreiss-Tomkins explained.

When it comes to general issue license plates, your options as an Alaskan driver are mustard yellow or a standing grizzly bear. They cost $30 each. The special plate Kreiss-Tomkins envisions would cost $50, with proceeds going to the winning artist and the Alaska State Council on the Arts, who would lead the design competition and pick a new plate every four years. “I think there is quite a bit of potential for it to become a viral collector’s item,” he said.

Kreiss-Tomkins said he’s aware that license plates won’t solve the state budget crisis. But he hoped the bill will imbue Alaska with richness in another way. “This isn’t a world changing idea, but it’s fun, it doesn’t cost anyone anything, and it creates a connection between people and our state government,” he said.

Scrolling through his Excel sheet, Kreiss-Tomkins has several other active pieces of legislation. One (HB 179) seeks to legalize the donation of fish and game to schools, nonprofits, and senior centers. Another (HB 157) creates a system for language immersion charter schools.

Kreiss-Tomkins is excited about what’s possible and what will appeal to both sides of the aisle. “I don’t like partisanship. I really dislike partisanship,” he said.

Kreiss-Tomkins is a member of the house minority, the Alaska Independent Democratic Coalition, but unlike half a dozen of its members, voted for the Operating Budget at the end of last session. He explained why at a Sitka Chamber of Commerce luncheon last month.

Kreiss-Tomkins:I feel that conservatism is responsible and necessary. In many instances, [the cuts] some people have advocated [for are] much further than what I think is reasonable. But further cuts are definitely a part of the solution.

A member of the audience then asked him a doozy of a question: Is it possible for the legislature to work together this session?

Kreiss-Tomkins: Well, last legislative session may have been the most dysfunctional in Alaska history. It will be hard to do worse than that.

Audience: (laughs)

Kreiss-Tomkins:I know from talking with one of my colleagues in the House – who played an important role in the negotiations – his sort of fighting words after we finally passed a budget earlier this year were, ‘We’re going to have these conversations months earlier, or start these conversations much earlier.’ And that’s really what happened. The two sides needed to talk. They needed to reach a compromise. And the conversations on what that compromise might be didn’t start until the last week of session.

As for this session, he adds, ‘I think and hope it will be better.’

Kreiss-Tomkins will serve on the same three house committees this year: fisheries, education, and state affairs. His office expense account is $16,000.