Laura Martinson McDonnell, pictured, is running as an Assembly Areawide candidate in the 2023 City and Borough of Juneau municipal election. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Laura Martinson McDonnell, pictured, is running as an Assembly Areawide candidate in the 2023 City and Borough of Juneau municipal election. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Get to know a candidate: Laura Martinson McDonnell

Assembly Areawide candidate in the 2023 Juneau municipal election.

This article has been moved in front of the Juneau Empire’s paywall.

Laura Martinson McDonnell: Assembly Areadwide Candidate

Age: 39

Occupation: Small Business Owner

Bio shared by candidate: “My roots here are deep, I have the unique experience of growing up in Juneau and experiencing all that CBJ has to offer first hand — from a small child in childcare (the childcare struggle was real even 40 years ago), to the JSD school system from kindergarten all the way to graduating as a proud crimson bear, to UAS — for both undergraduate and graduate degrees in business administration. Today I own a home, have been through the childcare struggle as a working parent, and have a daughter about to start first grade, two parents who refuse to retire but are set to ‘age’ here in Juneau, and a grandfather in the Pioneer home. This lifetime of engagement in Juneau has fostered my commitment to my hometown, and a vested interest in the success of our community.”

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Why do you want to be a member of the Juneau Assembly?

Well, I’ve always been engaged. Since the third grade I’ve been on the student council and I’ve always been involved. I feel like when you have something to give to your community I think it’s important to figure out how you can best serve, and find that area and then invest your time there.

So I’ve always been someone who’s involved. I always knew one day I would like to be on the Assembly, I thought I would wait till later on — maybe when my daughter was older — but right now feels like such a pivotal moment. It’s all the issues that are really important to me, housing, the economy, education, child care, everything that’s super important to me is on the table right now. So if I’m going to invest my time in something I feel like now’s the time to do it.

Describe your knowledge and involvement with Juneau’s municipal government and what you think the strengths and weaknesses of it are based on those experiences.

During the pandemic I was asked to serve on the mayor’s Economic Stabilization Task Force and that was a really eye-opening experience for me in that I got to see how much of an impact municipal government actually has directly on your community.

It was an incredible group of people and community members from just a huge, broad range of experiences and backgrounds, and what we were doing every single day — we got to see the impact immediately and how we were helping people in our community.

We can get kind of jaded with politics, especially national politics and even state politics, and I don’t really have the patience for that back and forth. I realized municipal government, you can really impact your neighbors immediately on a quick basis.

So from there I joined the (Greater Juneau) Chamber of Commerce Board, and I was also on the Blueprint Downtown Committee and I’m the incoming President of the Chamber of Commerce unless I get elected, in which case I’ll have to resign.

As the incoming president I have chaired the Government Affairs Committee for two years, which has had me deeply ingrained in all the nuances of the issues that we’re facing right now. I also chaired the Housing and Development Committee, which again, had me deeply ingrained in the nuances of all these issues. I think just being on both sides of that, working alongside the city and our private sector, I basically learned how much I didn’t know.

On the outside all these things seem so simple, like there’s such an easy answer. But these are really complicated issues and being ingrained in them for the last two years has really opened my eyes to the work that needs to be done. And I think it’s really important to be humble enough to admit what you don’t know, and to reach out and use that kind of institutional knowledge that’s around you. I have had the opportunity to do that by chairing these committees and I just learned a ton in the process.

Are you against, or in favor of the proposal for a new City Hall? What are your thoughts on the decision by the Assembly to both put it on the ballot again after it failed and to fund an advocacy initiative?

I will be voting yes on the bond issue — purely from a fiscal perspective because it is the most fiscally responsible choice. I really wish we hadn’t gotten here the way we did, because I do think it eroded a lot of trust in the community and made this issue so divisive, and it didn’t need to be divisive. It did not have to go this way. I understand everybody’s frustrations, I understand the need for more transparency in this process to bring some of that trust back. But if I take all the emotion out of it and I just look at the numbers, this is the smart decision and I don’t want to punish our future based on a process that could have been done differently.

Hindsight is always 20/20 so I don’t think there was ill intention. I just think that it could have gone better and now we’ve got a lot of trust to build back.

The “advocacy funds” is a state statute and I feel like we need to do a better job of telling that story. The city cannot disburse information about a bond issue without allocating funds to it so that it can be tracked by APOC (Alaska Public Offices Commission). It’s a state statute, there’s no way around it.

I feel like there’s been a lot of misinformation about that money and what it’s for. And the truth is they can’t even hold a town hall or disperse information about this project without allocating funding. It’s tough because it’s not a good look — but it’s the law.

They had to do it and that’s why they voted it (the advocacy initiative) down the first time (in 2022) because they knew it was not a good look. But, then they couldn’t talk about any of the reasons why they needed this new City Hall. So this Assembly is not in an easy position at all and I don’t envy them. But I also don’t love being on the ballot with an issue that had nothing to do with any of my decision-making. I feel like this election has become about that instead of the candidates who are on the same ballot and it didn’t need to be this way. It shouldn’t be so divisive.

What is your assessment of how much the city taxes its residents versus the amount of public services it provides to them? Specifically, outline what adjustment in each of those areas you’d advocate to change as a member of the Assembly.

This is always the biggest challenge, right? You have, on one hand, that we heard over and over and over again, how underpaid our first responders are and how we’re not keeping up with their wages compared to other people in the state. They need to be paid more. But where does that come from? We have these needs for basic services, and then everybody’s property taxes are too high. So we’ve got to find a way to either cut other things out of the budget that aren’t as important, which I think we can do a better job of, and maximize other revenue streams.

At the same time — because we do have needs that are not being met in this community for basic services, just because of inflation and the wage increase we’ve seen in the last five years — no one can keep up. I own a business, I can barely keep up with the wage increases and I only have eight employees.

I don’t love the way that the mill rate is set, I feel like it should be used as a balancing tool at the very end of the budgeting process to cover our basic, basic needs instead of the way it works. Now where all the assessments come in, we have the mill rate, we see how much money we have, and then we go ahead and spend it all I think we should figure out exactly what we need at a bare minimum. See what that does to our mill rate. And if there’s more without increasing the mill rate, or if we can decrease the mill rate. That’s a different conversation, but I feel like it’s done just a little bit backward right now.

The assessment hikes, they’re hurting people. It’s insane. But that is another thing that is the state statute. So the Assembly actually doesn’t have any control over the assessor’s office, which is another piece of misinformation. All they control is the mill rate — that is our balancing tool — and I feel like we can use it a little bit better to help the people in this community. I think if we were maximizing our other revenue streams more, we wouldn’t have this problem. We should be talking about our other industries and how we can foster that and grow our economy in those ways that the more we do that the more burden comes off the backs of the people.

There’s a lot of property that’s tax-exempt currently, and I know that a lot of it is for nonprofits and churches, and it has to be that way. But I’m just wondering if we took a closer look at which properties are tax-exempt right now and maybe reassess that? I just wonder if we are capturing all of the sales tax possible. I don’t want to increase sales tax, because we already have a kind of a backward sales tax structure. We have a lot of growth in this community right now. And I’m wondering if there are smarter ways to capture some of those revenues. I don’t have specific answers there. But I just see where the growth is and I see where the declines are. I just don’t feel like it should be going back onto the property owners. I feel like we can generate wealth in other ways.

How can the Assembly better balance the growing cruise ship tourism industry’s impact on the quality of life of residents, specifically regarding affordable housing, environmental impact and overall cost of living?

The Assembly has just recently adopted the Visitor Industry Task Force recommendations, because COVID got in the way, and they hadn’t had time to do it. I think we need to give the process a second to take action. We have a five-ship limit that starts next summer in 2024. It’s the first of its kind in the entire world, no community has come to an agreement with the industry like this. We need to let the other recommendations catch up, we need to let our infrastructure catch up. We have this huge growth coming out of the pandemic that we honestly should have been planning for 10 years ago and there was a lack of foresight there with tourism planning.

And it really has done a disservice to Juneau because if we had the infrastructure today to manage this in a better way, the impacts would not be felt as strongly as they are. This is the same growth curve we’ve seen for the last 20 years. This is not a surprise. So it’s unfortunate that we’re in this position. But when you talk to the broad swath of residents, the vast majority of Juneau is okay with cruise tourism.

Right now we have a very loud minority against it, but when you talk to the average person, not everybody is so displaced. I think it’s important to remember what the broad population thinks. Those of us who are working and we’re busy, and we have children, and we don’t have time to write letters all day long.

I feel like there’s this narrative that’s like, why aren’t more people complaining? And it’s kind of like, why do we want more people complaining? If more people aren’t complaining, that means we’re doing a good job. We’re mitigating these impacts better than most places in the entire world and we should be really proud of that.

Affordable housing is an interesting one because it’s not just the tourism industry. What’s happening is session is going longer than ever before and so is the tourism industry and they’re butting up against each other. But for some reason, tourism always gets blamed and not the legislature and I think it’s important to remember that we live in a seasonal economy. We have always lived in a seasonal economy session — we are geographically bound to a seasonal economy. It is not a bad thing, we should embrace it and maximize it.

If anything, tourism is going to help with the affordable housing issue, because it’s dumping revenue into this community that is going to help us grow and, and develop without a strong economy, we won’t develop more housing. Without a strong economy, none of this is going to be possible. So we need affordable housing. It’s not because of the tourism industry, it’s because we need to incentivize development in this community.

I think it’s really important to look at the data like it’s super easy just to see those cruise ships out there and blame them for everything that’s going wrong in our community. That’s actually not the problem. The problem is we need more housing, and we need it at all levels for people to spread out too. So we need somewhere for retired folks that are living in those five-bedroom homes with just two people and there’s nowhere for them to downsize to. So we need high-end condos for those people so they can free up houses for families. It’s a really complex issue and it’s not so simple as just tourism — it goes way beyond that.

Are there any substantial matters that we didn’t get around to talking about that you think is pertinent to discuss?

One of my biggest passions is the child care issue. Growing up in this community when I was a small child, I was raised by a single mother and the child care issue was a huge issue then and it’s a huge issue now.

My daughter is first grade now and thank goodness because the first four years of her life, it was one of the hardest parts of parenting in this community. I think the hardest part was finding adequate child care. We live in a in a day and age now where you need two incomes to be able to live in this community, at least most of us do.

Our entire economy depends on mothers and fathers both being able to go to work and COVID set us really far back with women in the workforce especially. So childcare has been something I’ve been focused on for a long time. That is one of my number one priorities is this childcare crisis. It’s nationwide, it’s statewide, but in the community of Juneau, we always tend to do things better and I think we can do this better.

The work that the Assembly has done has been really, really beneficial. It’s hard because you see all this money going into childcare but for many, we still don’t have childcare. My number one priority and running for Assembly is the economy because without a strong economy, we can’t achieve anything. We can’t take care of our most vulnerable. We can’t solve any of our problems without a very strong economy. We are not a government town anymore. That’s not where all of our money comes from. We have a dynamic economy that we’ve got to pay attention to. It’s not just going to show up, the state is not giving us funding anymore. We have got to come to terms with that and figure out how we’re going to take care of ourselves a little bit more sustainably on our own childcare. So the huge piece to that puzzle.

• Contact reporter Clarise Larson at or (651) 528-1807.

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