Juneau’s state legislators field questions, cynicism at town hall

Rep. Justin Parish addresses a packed room at the Mendenhall Valley Public Library during a town hall with Juneau's state legislators on Thursday, Jan. 11, 2018. Parish, Rep. Sam Kito III, left, and Sen. Dennis Egan make up Juneau's legislative delegation. (Photo by Adelyn Baxter/KTOO)

Rep. Justin Parish addresses a packed room at the Mendenhall Valley Public Library during a town hall with Juneau’s state legislators on Thursday. Parish, Rep. Sam Kito III, left, and Sen. Dennis Egan make up Juneau’s legislative delegation. (Photo by Adelyn Baxter/KTOO)

Juneau’s state legislators hosted a town hall Thursday to hear from the public and talk through concerns. The 2018 legislative session begins next week.

In a packed room at the Mendenhall Valley Public Library, Sen. Dennis Egan and Reps. Justin Parish and Sam Kito III struck a somewhat pessimistic tone as they fielded questions from constituents.

“We are getting to the point where we are almost out of savings in our constitutional budget reserve account,” Kito said.

He said oil revenue went from making up 90 percent of state earnings to now between 20 percent and 25 percent, forcing the state to draw on savings.

“We still have to provide for education and public health according to our constitution,” Kito said. “We have to provide a transportation system. All of those things cost money.”

The state needs to find ways to cover that deficit, he said, whether through a proposed state income tax, dipping into the Permanent Fund or some other solution. Budget reserves won’t last.

Egan shared his own reservations about the upcoming session.

“It’s an election year, and a lot of times every two years a lot of things don’t happen because people are running for re-election and they’re afraid to tackle major issues,” Egan said. “And that concerns me. It shouldn’t be about election years, it should be about solving Alaska’s problems.”

Helen Unruh asked if there was anything to be done about legislative inaction. Parish suggested leaning on other Alaskans.

“Do you have any friends in Fairbanks? If you have any friends who are represented by a senator who’s in the majority, please have them call their senator,” Parish said. “I know that when I get a call from a constituent, I take it very seriously.”

Still, several community members echoed the feeling that Alaska’s fiscal future is being held hostage by the Republican-led Senate majority.

Juneau’s legislators are all Democrats.

Egan didn’t contest one constituent’s observation at the town hall:

“We’re not talking and there’s just not enough being done during the session,” the young man said. “Lord knows the governor has tried to force you guys to work it out, calling you guys back over and over again, but to no avail.”

“But we do nothing,” Egan replied.

Afterward, Egan said the partisan politics that have overtaken the Legislature weren’t always the norm.

“Well I thought we functioned really well when we were a bipartisan working group,” he said. “We did a lot of great things for the people of the state, but we worked together, Republicans and Democrats, and an independent. But we got things done. But lately, I don’t like it. I mean, I don’t like the way it’s been functioning.”

The 30th Alaska Legislature reconvenes Tuesday.

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