Homer resident Sarah Vance is set to take House District 31 Rep. Paul Seaton’s place in little over a week. She met with constituents late Thursday morning ahead of the upcoming legislative session. Constituents lobbied and questioned the freshman representative on everything from the budget to the potential repeal of a contentious criminal justice reform bill.
Over a dozen people crowded into the meeting room at the Homer Legislative Information Office to get their chance to personally ask Vance questions.
Most questioned her about the state’s finances. Vance, who ran on finding efficiencies in state government and budget cuts, didn’t offer many specifics.
“I’m going to be honest that I haven’t looked at the budget yet,” Vance said. “I’m going in with everything is on the table.
Vance said she has mostly focused on hiring staff and on her move to Juneau since being elected. However, answers like that led to interactions such as this one with Homer resident Savanna Bradley.
Bradley: “I’m assuming you’ve looked at, as part of your process of becoming a representative, past budgets at least?”
Vance: “Yes... and looking at some of the areas of concern, but everyone is nervous for good reason because we need to make some changes. But then there’s also a lot of concern with the new administration and I hear that, and I share those concerns for the future of our state.”
Questions about budget cuts ranged from more tangible impacts on the line at the DMV to early childhood services. Vance noted that municipalities have taken the brunt of slashes to the budget, and she said individual Alaskans have also shouldered some of the load.
But she still left some with fewer answers than they had hoped for.
“I can’t tell you that I’m looking at any specific cuts,” Vance said.
Vance said she plans to dig into the budget once she’s on the ground in Juneau, and she also noted that she may serve on some budget subcommittees once committee assignments are announced.
Vance was more specific when it came to education. She say she’s supportive of forward funding education, something the Legislature enacted last year.
“That also helps the school districts be able to retain good teachers and hire and fill that without having to hold their breath until the budget is cleared,” she said.
Vance added that one of her priorities is working to change regulations determining the footprint of new schools in an effort to reduce the price tag of a new school building in the rural village of Kachemak Selo.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough is having difficulties coming up with the roughly $5 million it needs to utilize a state grant for the school. Borough residents shot down a ballot proposal asking property owners to pay for the borough’s share last fall.
“So I would like to see more localized control so that the school districts have the ability to adapt to the needs of each area without having to have a $16 million school that the voters don’t approve of,” she said. “They still need a school.”
However, Vance noted that she does not want to see any safety measures already in regulations changed as a result.
Senate Bill 91, a controversial criminal justice reform bill, was also a topic of discussion. Vance ran her campaign heavily on repealing the bill.
Vance didn’t say what pieces of the legislation may remain or what changes a new piece of legislation may bring if the current bill is replaced, but when asked, she did note that mental health services in prison need to be part of the conversation.
“It’s astounding to hear the majority of people who are incarcerated are dealing with those types of issues and what are we doing to give them the care so they don’t just automatically reoffend,” Vance said while talking about a tour of she took of the Spring Creek Correctional Facility in Seward.
Vance was also asked whether she would consider joining central peninsula House Rep. Gary Knopp’s proposed bipartisan coalition. Vance said she hasn’t said yes or no to anything, but added that she didn’t see that organization of the House as a “favorable path forward.”
Vance is due to fly out to Juneau on Monday.
She is also set to hold similar Q&A events in Nininlchik Friday and Kasilof Saturday. The legislative session will begin Jan. 15.