Roughly 60 people showed up to a town hall meeting with Sen. Gary Stevens at the Islands and Ocean Visitor Center early Friday afternoon to discuss the state budget. Stevens clearly told his constituents he does not support the deep budget cuts that Gov. Mike Dunleavy is proposing.
Stevens said slashing services to pay for a $3,000 dividend is unacceptable and he vowed that the Legislature wouldn’t accept the governor’s proposed spending plan.
“That’s the horrible reality of this budget is that it scares people unnecessarily,” he said. “We're not going to cut education as drastically (as Gov. Dunleavy proposed). I promise you we're not going to do that.”
But he said some cuts are necessary and that the compromise will lie somewhere between cutting services and the hefty PFD Dunleavy promised voters. However, he said finding middle ground will be a battle.
Stevens supported Senate Finance Committee Co-Chair Sen. Bert Stedman’s idea that would gradually introduce some budget cuts over the next few years rather than all at once.
“He does want to do a step-down, but nowhere near as violent as the governor's proposed,” he said. “So what he's going to do is say, ‘OK, let's take education. What can we do to reduce education 1 percent this year and then look at it next year? We'll do another 1 percent or whatever that might be.’ So I think it's a much more of a gentler approach not get to what the governor is right now.”
Most resident’s comments on Friday expressed concern over deep budget cuts to areas such as education, Medicaid and public broadcasting. A few residents supported cuts, but many said they would prefer reduced PFDs and an income tax.
Dave Jones is the assistant superintendent of Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, but spoke as a resident of the peninsula.
“I get paid to live here," he said. "Because I wake up here 300 and some days a year, they send me a PFD check. I don't do anything for that. So I will tell you what I told you back in 2002, sir, please tax me because I want to pay my fair share of the services I receive in this state.”
Stevens said an income tax is inevitable, but he said any tax proposal would likely fail under the Dunleavy administration. Reducing some tax credits for oil companies was also a topic of discussion, something Stevens supports.
Stevens also expressed caution about some of the governor’s other proposals like privatizing the Marine Highway System. He said regardless, the state will still need to financially support state ferries.
“So that means in Southeastern Alaska, the inner-island ferries, we subsidize that to the tune of about a quarter of a million dollars, if not more,” he said. “So to privatize, it's a nice idea, but it's going to cost us money I think in the end.”
House Rep. Sarah Vance was also mentioned several times during Friday’s meeting. The freshman Republican hosted a town hall earlier this month. Residents like Homer City Council Member Caroline Venuti said she didn’t feel heard by Vance.
“Are you working with her?” Vanuti asked Stevens. “You have such a calm, compassionate 19 years of experience. Are you working with her at all so that (her) response isn’t always going to be, ‘I'm following the governor's orders,’ but that she is really going to listen to us, as all of us, she's a representative of all of us. I’m concerned about this.”
Stevens said it’s his job to work with Rep. Vance, but he declined to comment on Venuti’s concerns.
Earlier this month, Vance criticized letters she received from high school students concerning education cuts. Stevens said he also received letters from those students and said there can be dire consequences for critiquing kids who express help.
“You can’t react that way,” he said. “You have to meet kids where they are, you have to take them to the next step.”
Stevens also hosted a town hall in at Chapman School in Anchor Point Friday afternoon, one of many schools the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District says is on the chopping block if Dunleavy’s proposed cuts go through.
This story was updated on Saturday, March 16.