Homer Republican Sarah Vance didn’t get a very warm reception during her first trip back to the southern Kenai Peninsula since the legislative session began in Juneau.
During a contentious two-hour long town hall Saturday, residents pressed the freshman House member on whether she supports the deep cuts being proposed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy.
Roughly 400 Homer area residents filled the upstairs of the Kachemak Bay college campus Saturday morning. Some voiced their support for Vance’s general stance on cutting the budget.
But the question that appeared to be on many people’s minds was whether she supports the particular cuts to public services within Gov. Dunleavy’s balanced budget and the public sector job losses that would come with it.
But Vance tried to side-step the question when a man asked her to give a yes-or-no answer on whether she supported the governor’s spending plan.
“As is? It is not a yes or no. There’s no rubber stamp on this budget,” she responded.
Homer resident Poppy Benson was one of many people to ask Vance to consider last year’s income tax proposal championed by her predecessor to fill the gap left by declining oil revenue.
“Every other state in the union pays for their state government. They do not have a sugar daddy. We’ve had one for 30 years. It’s been wonderful,” she said to laughter. “But the sugar daddy is 50 years old and isn’t paying out so well anymore. So we have to come up with another solution.”
However, Vance countered she had defeated her predecessor Paul Seaton, a Republican turned nonpartisan who allied himself with House Democrats. Her platform, she said, included supporting a full permanent fund dividend check.
“I will not ignore the vote of the people. All of you matter, but you do not represent all of the district,” she said.
Vance also voiced support for some of the governor’s other initiatives, including his proposed constitutional amendment that would require voters to approve future tax increases.
She said the framework of the bill would allow Alaskans to put forth an income tax proposal. It would also require lawmakers’ approval.
Vance also downplayed how much revenue an income tax could raise for the state.
“An income tax will bring in about $350 million max. With the rate of increase in inflation and healthcare and some of the costs of things that just naturally occur,” Vance argued. “An income tax would cover just that without increasing anything.”
It’s unclear how Vance arrived at that number. It greatly underestimates projections delivered to the Legislature and an independent analysis estimating an income tax would raise nearly $700 million in revenue.
Education was also a hot topic Saturday. High school junior Sophie Morin questioned how Vance could support cutting 25 percent of state aid to public schools.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District projects the cuts would leave more than 200 teachers without a job and popular sports and after school programs canceled.
“If our families and teachers feel as if we need to leave the state to get a good education and a good job, there’s a problem,” Morin said. “Today’s students are the people that will join the workforce here in Alaska, get a professional education at the university in the state, and if we don’t get proper funding for a proper education, there’s not much here for us.”
More generally, Vance has defended cuts to K-12 education, arguing school districts statewide need to cut more administrative positions. She refrained Saturday from making specific comments about the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.
On the Kenai Peninsula, the district said it has already cut $12 million from its budget over the past five years and that it can’t stave cuts in the classroom much longer.
At one point, questions surrounding education turned emotional for Vance who repeatedly reminded her constituents that she’s also a parent.
“I have four children of my own. I’m invested in the public school system myself and it does affect me,” Vance said as she fought back tears.
But she refused to rule out cuts to school districts. Despite criticism, she reiterated that the state is in a difficult situation and that all options remain on the table.