Those who spoke at Tuesday’s town hall meeting were from different parts of town and from different walks of life but all of them had the same sentiment: Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposed budget has them worried.
More than 200 people showed up at Juneau-Douglas High School to listen to and share their thoughts with Juneau’s legislative delegation — Sen. Jesse Kiehl and Reps. Sara Hannan and Andi Story, all Democrats. A couple dozen attendees came to the microphone to ask questions or make comments to the trio of first-year lawmakers.
One of the main themes was people saying they’d be willing to pay taxes to provide the state with another revenue source. Others said they’d be interested in taking a smaller Permanent Fund Dividend if it meant keeping state funding intact for services such as the University of Alaska or the Alaska Marine Highway System.
Hannan, who represents District 33, said she’s in favor of an income tax and informed those in attendance that she was preparing to unveil legislation the following day that would institute a tax on electronic cigarettes. She said she’s hoping to take away the stigma of the idea of taxes.
“Part of my reasoning for it is to get people talking about and using the word ‘tax’ and not flinching,” Hannan said.
Another main line of questioning from members of the public was what the new legislators are doing to assert themselves in the Capitol. One early question was to the representatives, asking that with the House taking 30 days to get organized, how were they working to make sure the work got done in a timely manner?
Story, who represents District 34, said it was vital for her and Hannan to get in with the majority in the House and it took time to get a strong majority together. She said meetings have been happening at a torrid pace to make up for lost time, and she said the House should have recommendations for changes to the governor’s budget ready around March 22.
“The House wants to put a very different budget out there from the governor’s proposal,” Story said.
The most passionate member of the public was University of Alaska Southeast freshman (and JDHS graduate) Noah Williams. As he stood in line to speak, Williams wrote up notes to himself on his laptop. When he arrived at the microphone, he whipped the crowd into a frenzy, accusing Dunleavy of being a “bully” and of trying to ruin the state’s economy in the name of resource extraction.
Many attendees clapped and even whooped as Williams became more and more demonstrative, and people came up to him afterward and thanked him for saying what he said.
Kiehl responded calmly but confidently, saying he and his fellow Juneau legislators weren’t going to be intimidated by anyone, despite how political and polite they seemed.
“The two representatives sitting next to me are as tough as they come in this building,” Kiehl said. “I’m not intimidated by somebody I’ve got to crane my neck at. I’ve had to do it all my life. Neither of them are intimidated by anybody.”
In an interview after the meeting, Williams expressed that he still wanted to see a little more fire from the legislative delegation.
“I trust the intentions of all three people here tonight. That said, I think they’re a little too nice and a little too afraid to attack the governor.”
Others in attendance were proud of the way the three lawmakers handled themselves. Amy Paige, who has lived in Alaska since 1966, said she’s unhappy with the current administration but was thankful that Juneau has a delegation that seems prepared to respectfully stand up to the administration and work on a budget that won’t cut state services so severely.
The legislators walked the line between optimistic and realistic, saying they were confident that the eventual budget wouldn’t include anywhere near the cuts that were outlined in the governor’s budget proposal. Still, Kiehl warned that Dunleavy’s fiscal ideology could “easily crash our economy” if the Legislature didn’t do its job and revise the budget. Hannan expressed a similar sentiment.
“There are going to be cuts this year,” Hannan said. “We just don’t want them to be devastating.”
Kiehl, Hannan and Story all advised people to keep doing exactly what they were doing at the town hall meeting — make their voices heard.
“Keep the noise happening up at the Capitol building,” Story said. “It is really making the difference and that’s what it’s going to take.”
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.