Members of the Working Group plan to meet several times in locations around the state, before the legislature reconvenes in August. “I think there’s half a chance we could have productive conversations and progress,” says co-chair Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins (D-Sitka).

The governor’s budget vetoes earlier this month — over $1.1 billion dollars’ worth — include a significant hit to Sitka.

Gone are over $21-million dollars in major maintenance statewide for schools, $7.8 million dollars for repairs at Mt. Edgecumbe High School, $100,000 dollars to maintain the Mt. Edgecumbe Aquatics Center, just over $2-million for public radio, $600,000 for public television, and $600,000 for the statewide online library network.

The governor vetoed these items from a budget passed by the legislature, which included a Permanent Fund dividend of only $525. However, a single draw on state savings — requiring another vote of the legislature — would have bumped the payment up to $1,100.

For legislators like Sitka Representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, the governor’s vetoes seem punitive, and don’t move the state toward a sustainable solution for its budget shortfalls. Instead, as Gov. Dunleavy discussed in his July 1 press conference, he’s still trying to leverage support for a constitutional amendment that would split the earnings of the Permanent Fund between dividends and state government, and make up the rest through an unspecified tax — which even conservative Republicans like Sitka’s Sen. Bert Stedman say does not add up.

Kreiss-Tomkins, a Democrat, has agreed to co-chair a bipartisan working group to come up with a fresh plan for the state’s finances, and to do it before the legislature reconvenes in a special session this August. KCAW’s Robert Woolsey recently called Kreiss-Tomkins to discuss the outlook for the Joint Fiscal Plan Working Group, and it’s ambitious goal.

Other representatives in the group include Calvin Schrage, an Anchorage independent, Ben Carpenter, a Nikiski Republican, and Kevin McCabe, a Big Lake Republican.

The senate members include Lyman Hoffman a Bethel Democrat, Shelley Hughes, a Palmer Republican,  Scott Kawasaki, a Fairbanks Democrat, and Jesse Kiehl, a Juneau Democrat.


KCAW – It seems like the governor is still trying to leverage support for his 50-50 Permanent Fund dividend plan, which just as far as I know, doesn’t have the support and the legislature to pass. Is he exercising a bit of muscle with the veto pen here? I  wonder what you feel about the context of the vetoes and where things stand as you’re heading into the next special session.

Kreiss-Tomkins – Yeah, I think the governor is frustrated. And the vetoes reflect that frustration. And he’s frustrated, in part because he doesn’t have support from the legislature or arguably, from Alaskans, for what he is proposing. And his constitutional amendment proposal requires a two thirds supermajority, as any constitutional amendment does in the legislature. And I don’t think he even has a simple majority for it. So he is far, far away from this ever being a reality. And that’s just the fact. Legislators aren’t there and Alaskans aren’t, and they’re who we represent. And I wish he were more engaged because I think if he were in the building and talking with legislators. But there were a couple weeks when, you know, he was more present and involved, but largely, he’s been absent. He literally went off on a hunting trip in the last week of legislative session. Like that’s unheard of, from a governor of Alaska in the last week of the session. So I think we’re seeing the culmination of this frustration, and also, I think, a lack of investment in the relationship with the legislature.

KCAW – So where does the working group fall into this? Is this about trying to rally for an override or is it trying to come up with a plan? An alternative to the governor’s? What does the working group hope to accomplish between now and August 2?

Kreiss-Tomkins – No, the the premise of the working group is to pull together legislators from diverse backgrounds, diverse districts, to try to, in effect, create a grand compromise to solve it all: Taxes, budget cuts, constitutional amendments, Permanent Fund, PFD — all of it. All of it is within scope. And we are charged just to see if we can somehow in some fashion, work towards some consensus findings that can be the basis of passing legislation. So it’s an incredibly ambitious premise. Everybody knows it’s needed, regardless of where you are. Everybody recognizes that the status quo is failing Alaska, politically untenable, it’s mathematically untenable. And you know, the worst that can happen is that we don’t succeed. And we’re back where we were anyway. But this is an attempt to try to pull together all the disparate, necessary components of a big compromise. To put to bed a lot of the issues have bedeviled Alaska over the last number of years.

KCAW – What are your feelings about the possibilities of success for the working group? I mean, the legislature is 60 people, and it’s hard to get folks on the same page. Do you see the task as achievable that lies in front of you?

Kreiss-Tomkins – Well, the worst that can happen is we don’t succeed. And we’re exactly where we were to begin with, so there’s nothing to lose. So I mean, fortunately, it can’t really make us go backwards from where we are. So I think that’s important. And the best thing that can happen is that we actually have some breakthroughs. In the low-grade chaos and freneticism of the legislative process, there’s actually not really time and space and process that provides for these really, really big picture conversations. I think there’s actually, you know, half a chance that we can have productive conversations and progress. And so I think it’s absolutely worth giving it our very best shot. And again if we don’t succeed, which is entirely possible, we’re exactly where we were when we started.