Juneau’s three Democratic state lawmakers were hardly facing an angry mob at a town hall meeting Wednesday night, as questions from the roughly 25 constituents in the audience about more education funding, crime prevention and health care services for the disadvantaged were essentially aligned with the delegations political positions and priorities.
But, as state Rep. Sarah Hannan noted in a response to one question during the hour-long meeting at Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School, “there are no simple answers” when trying to achieve such goals with a Republican governor and what will likely be two legislative bodies with bipartisan majorities.
A classic example is funding for public broadcasting, brought up by longtime education advocate Lisa X’unyéil Worl wondering about news and Gavel To Gavel coverage. State Sen. Jesse Kiehl responded by noting Gov. Mike Dunleavy has included no such state funds in each of his proposed budgets, legislators have included funding in the subsequent budgets they pass every session and the governor ultimately zeroed out funding with a line-item veto.
“I don’t necessarily expect that dynamic to change, which is unfortunate,” Kiehl said. “Public radio is surviving, but in many parts of the state it’s struggling.”
Juneau’s delegation hosted the town hall as part of their preparatory efforts for the Alaska State Legislature session that starts on Tuesday. All introduced prefile bills this week they discussed to some extent, along with other general overviews such as the broad framework of the governor’s proposed state budget.
“The real intent tonight is to hear your priorities and concerns,” Rep. Andi Story said in her introductory remarks.
A prominent presence for both the in-person and online Facebook audience were two sign language interpreters who alternated duties during the meeting. Hannan said the Juneau delegation is the only one among municipalities providing such interpretations and is an example of constituent input producing results.
“That’s not something we did,” she said. “We had constituents reach out to us.”
A short question about violence prevention efforts from Katie Botz, a local school bus driver and advocate for public safety issues, resulted in responses from all three delegation members that were lengthy and touched on numerous issues they said were intertwined.
About 80% of people entering the state’s penitentiaries have signs of a diagnosed mental illness and another 10% likely have undiagnosed symptoms, Hannan said, citing official studies. She said while prisons are Alaska’s most costly per-head function, “prison doesn’t tend to make people healthier” for reasons ranging from poor food to disruptive living conditions.
“Last year the Legislature was surprised to find out more than half of people in prisons and jails have not been convicted of a crime,” she said. “That’s a very expensive thing to do.”
Hannan also noted there were a record number of deaths in Alaska’s prisons in 2022. Concerns have also been raised locally at Lemon Creek Correctional Center due to high inmate transfer rates as the facility undergoes repairs.
Kiehl an encouraging development is this week’s appointment by Dunleavy of Jen Winkelman as the new Department of Corrections commissioner-designee, who must be confirmed by the legislature, Kiehl said.
“She’s lived in Juneau for a very long time and she has her head screwed on straight, he said. “She understands both the mission of the Department of Corrections is to keep dangerous people behind bars so Alaskans are protected from them and to monitor their reentry into society. I think with her we have a real opportunity to make some progress.”
The local lawmakers agreed improving services for the incarcerated, which means increasing funding, is a tough political goal since many residents prefer to see more help for victims and law-abiding people in need of help.
“I don’t love the idea of providing extra help to somebody who’s made a victim of somebody in Alaska, but what I really need is for them not to create another victim,” Kiehl said.
Among the improvements needed, he said, is more inmate reentry housing. While housing shortages are a critical problem throughout the state, including Juneau, if just-released inmates have no place to stay they will almost certainly resort to more illegal activities, Kiehl said.
Story, who emphasized better behavioral health services during a couple portions of the evening, said another difficult political reality is funding for that is competing with many other key needs entering a session where available funds aren’t likely to be abundant.
“We have to look at how we’re going to pay for those needs, so a fiscal plan is something everybody has been talking about,” she said.
Dunleavy’s proposed budget lists a deficit of about $250 million that will have to covered with reserve funds, although the real figure may be double that when additional supplemental spending deemed necessary is added, Kiehl said. He also criticized the governor for promising “full” PFDs that will cost the state about $2.8 billion, while making no increase to education funding and seeking to pay for Alaska Marine Highway operations with federal funds that are intended to upgrade the ferry system instead.
Multiple questions about health care, including the loss of local hospice services and other shortages to help those most in need, were asked by attendees. Hannan noted some remedies are underway or planned, such as Bartlett Regional Hospital preparing to open a new behavioral health facility that will have five to seven daybeds for minors.
Kiehl said the current year’s budget did increase funding to some service providers with the understanding it would be used for wages, but it’s still short of what’s needed to lure quality workers from elsewhere and stop the high outmigration from Alaska.
“I don’t think we’ve done enough to help those nonprofits stay afloat,” he said. “Every sector of our economy is having a hard time hiring.”
Some of the staff shortages are the result of poor governance, Kiehl added, noting a months-long backlog in processing food stamp applications led to the replacement of the director of the Division of Public Services this week. He blamed the problem largely on the Dunleavy administration’s unwillingness to spend money on sufficient staff.
“Some of that was the pandemic, some of that was a decision not to hire any public assistance worker for eight solid months as the backlist grew,” he said. “That’s unacceptable.”
• Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at firstname.lastname@example.org