The Anchorage Daily News asked candidates for the Alaska Legislature in Southcentral Alaska to answer a series of issue questions. Read all of them here.
James Kaufman | Republican | Occupation: Retired | Age: 61 | Residence: Anchorage | Relevant experience or prior offices held: A career in oil and gas production and refining projects, most of it as a team lead or manager. Most were multi-billion-dollar projects with a global supply chain. In addition to this I have some small business experience in light construction. I am an active member of our Community Council, the Anchorage Coalition of Community Patrol, and board member of HALO (Hillside Area Landowners Organization).| Kaufman4House.com
Why are you running for office?
In recent years I have watched Alaska and particularly Anchorage going in the wrong direction in terms of quality of life, public safety, and economic security. I believe that we need new perspective and a more proactive approach to building public consensus around a brighter future. I believe that my background in quality management and continuous improvement processes can help our legislature focus upon essential improvements that will create new opportunities. As far as timing, I just could not sit on the sidelines and watch anymore. Being in government was never a “bucket list” goal for me, but with encouragement by others; I decided to run.
The coronavirus pandemic has changed life in Alaska. In addition to ongoing public health threats, the state has seen serious, long-term impacts to its economy and jobs, education system, tourism and the ability for residents to travel. Have state leaders handled the pandemic effectively? Explain.
The virus has turned out to be much less potent than the early models indicated, but many are locked into a mindset that is based upon the much more lethal initial projections. Our state level response has been more aligned with reality and much less capricious than here in Anchorage. Shutting down the largest city in the state and a major section of our state’s economy has a profoundly negative effect that must also be considered from a public health and an economic perspective. In general, I think that it is time to take a much more balanced approach, one that is based upon actual, rather than perceived risk. The state is farther ahead in that respect than we are in Anchorage.
What role should the state play in repairing economic damage in Alaska from the pandemic?
We should take all possible steps to open our economy and get back to work. Review our regulations for bottlenecks that inhibit opportunity. Perhaps a multi-disciplinary task force could be assembled to make recommendations that could be fast tracked. We cannot afford any new government funded boondoggles, but we could get a round table of citizen volunteers together, those with broad and deep knowledge of our economic potential that could produce high value recommendations. There is a lot of untapped wisdom in the citizens of this state. I know because I have found so much of it while talking to the people of District 28.
Describe two pressing issues facing your district. What do you plan to do about them if elected?
A great many of the people that I have met within District 28 are deeply concerned with the sense that their quality of life is deteriorating with respect to financial and personal security. The feeling is that a dark cloud is on the horizon and that we are persistently steering towards it, rather than away from it. I agree with them. I believe that we need to re-purpose government to better serve the people by efficiently delivering essential services and get out of the way of innovation and private sector initiative that can create an economic renaissance. By doing those two things we can restore the people’s belief that there is a bright future in this state. The Hillside and our communities along Turnagain Arm are also particularly susceptible to fire risk as they are in forested settings. I have been quite active in raising awareness of this in my role on the board of HALO and will maintain a focus on fire risk mitigation and prevention if elected.
How would you create a sustainable state operating budget that doesn’t borrow annually from the state’s savings to meet shortfalls?
I would support a more robust constitutional budget cap, reduce spending, seek structural reforms and efficiencies with respect to how services are delivered to reduce the “shock” of lowered spending. Maintain focus upon efficient delivery of essential services. Seek opportunities for private sector solutions in cases where that may be the most efficient option. Seek additional revenue only after assuring that waste and inefficiency has been largely worked out of the system.
What is your vision for the Alaska Permanent Fund and the future of the dividend program?
Continue to grow the Permanent Fund as a financial resource for the future.
The process for calculating the dividend is clouded by conflicting statutes, court decisions and as a result, there is a great deal of disagreement within the public arena. This needs to be corrected.
The changes in how we fund the state and the future of the dividend were done autocratically, without the benefit of productive public debate and consensus building in three key areas:
• How much government do we need?
• Are there more efficient solutions?
• How do we fund the needed services?
The “Great Alaskan Debate” that I envision will be a very public opportunity for the citizens to really look at how well our public sector performs, how much it costs, if there are more efficient solutions that have been overlooked, and then lastly, how we fund the essential services. This debate should be done with absolute transparency and a great deal of public involvement.
The state is projecting a $2.3 billion deficit for the next fiscal year if the Permanent Fund dividend is paid using the traditional formula in state law. If no dividend is paid, the deficit would be about $300 million. Do you support cutting services to pay a larger dividend? If so, what services would you cut first?
I disagree with the inherent bias of this question which, as phrased assumes that there is no room for improvement or greater efficiency and that any reduction in spending must equal a commensurate reduction in services. In real life we often find ways to spend less that do not negatively impact our life. Somehow that concept seems alien when applied to government. As stated in the previous answer, there needs to be a much more holistic and transparent conversation about how public funds are spent, which services are deemed essential, and how they are funded. We need to build a new consensus with the public to restore trust. A barrage of new taxes in conjunction with the dividend will be quite unpopular in District 28. The solution is to build a broad consensus upon what spending is essential and then lay out how we plan to fund it. In the end, the question is how much private sector capital will be absorbed by state spending.
What are your ideas to improve Alaska’s elementary and high schools?
Innovation, creativity, and competition to spur higher performance. Incentivize and support teachers while reducing non-classroom costs and overhead. Our public school systems are expensive and do not measure up in terms of performance when compared to others across the nation. We need to fix them.
What is your vision for the University of Alaska?
I believe that we need a university system in Alaska, but it must become more efficient and much more accountable in terms of actual benefit to the people. When this topic is discussed with the people in my district, most of the comments that I receive are with respect to the need to right-size the system while obtaining greater efficiency and much improved accountability in terms of academic performance/accreditation. I agree with them.
What would you do to reduce high rates of sexual assault and domestic violence in Alaska?
Stiff prosecution, judicial discretion and adequate penalties for the perpetrators. Counseling and support for victims.
What are your ideas to stabilize, grow and diversify Alaska’s economy?
Nearly every answer that I have given on this questionnaire is geared towards just that very question. Liberty and the economic opportunity that comes with it is what creates all of the things that we need and the lifestyle that we cherish. If we were to start getting serious about creating new opportunities and new prosperity, many of the other problems will diminish.
What’s your position on the proposed Pebble mine?
We are largely a resource project economy, so we should continue to perform the review process to see if this particular project can be done safely and if it will actually return significant benefit to the people of Alaska. If it cannot meet that test, then it should not proceed.
What other important issue would you like to discuss with voters?
Gratitude. I would just like to thank the many citizens of District 28 that have opened up to me and openly discussed their concerns, fears and hopes for our district, for Alaska and for our country. Those conversations have made my candidacy very rewarding on a personal level, and incredibly valuable in terms of really knowing what’s in the hearts and minds of the people. I would also like to express my sincere thanks to the voters in the August Republican primary!