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.
Suzanne LaFrance | Nonpartisan | Occupation: Telecommunications manager | Age: 51 | Residence: Anchorage | Relevant experience or prior offices held: Anchorage Assembly, District 6 Representative, 2017-2020; 2020- Alaska Municipal League, Board Member Chair; Assembly Budget and Finance Committee Co-Chair, Assembly Health Policy Committee Assembly Vice Chair, 2019 Chair, Assembly Audit Committee 2018 | votesuzanne.com
Why are you running for office?
It’s time to take a clear look at our state’s financial situation and set aside partisan politics. To balance the state’s budget and protect Alaska’s economic competitiveness, we need new leadership driven by business experience. I’ve spent my career in the private sector, and I have the skills to get our state back on track.
I decided to run because I love our state and my community. I’m a lifelong Alaskan who has spent 22 years in our district, living and raising a family. I can’t stand by and let bad policies bankrupt our state and ruin Alaska as a land of opportunity and prosperity for future generations. I’ve dedicated my time and my heart to local government and with the experience I’ve gained, I’m ready to do the same at the state level.
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.
Early action by state and local leaders flattened the curve in Alaska and saved lives. Ongoing testing, along with the Governor’s traveler quarantines and restrictions on businesses, schools and gatherings have likely helped keep Alaska’s numbers low. State medical experts have continued to provide science-based information to Alaskans.
After these promising first moves however, the Governor has fallen short in his duty to help Alaskans. There are local governments in Alaska that lack the authority or capacity to enact or enforce health measures, and need state help. State CARES Act funds have been slow to roll out, which has hurt our small businesses. While I appreciate the Governor’s attempt to use CARES Act funds to pay the State’s portion of school bond debt reimbursement, that attempt failed and now Anchorage residents will pay an average of an additional $420 each next year because the State lacks a fiscal plan.
What role should the state play in repairing economic damage in Alaska from the pandemic?
It’s important to keep in mind that the pandemic isn’t over yet. We need to continue to be vigilant not only to keep our neighbors safe and well, but because this will help the economy by avoiding further shutdowns. For recovery to succeed, we need to work together at all levels. We face big challenges with the combined effects of the pandemic, the lingering recession and low oil prices.
It’s the job of the state to support local governments' recovery efforts while also being a source of economic stability to individuals, businesses, non-profits and institutions. Quicker distribution of COVID-19 relief funds to businesses, close communication and coordination with leaders of local governments, support for business adaptation and innovation, and a public works jobs and training program will all be important to Alaska’s recovery.
Describe two pressing issues facing your district. What do you plan to do about them if elected?
Residents in our district value quality education. Many families with school-aged children are concerned about ongoing cuts to our schools. They worry that our district won’t be a good place to raise a family or be a viable place to live, and that property values will drop as a result. As someone who received a quality Alaska public school education, and the parent of three children in ASD schools, I share those concerns. I will advocate for a fiscal plan that will help ensure adequate funding of education. Inflation-proofing the funding formula and forward funding education will help keep our schools strong.
Wildfire is a very serious issue in our district as many areas have only one road for evacuation. The McHugh Creek Fire in 2016 made clear that danger when it threatened our district. Girdwood lacks secondary egress as well. As a state legislator I would support funding the Firewise Alaska program and would work with all parties to secure resources for preventative measures.
How would you create a sustainable state operating budget that doesn’t borrow annually from the state’s savings to meet shortfalls?
While we should always be looking for better and more cost effective ways to provide essential services, further deep cuts to the budget would make it impossible to fulfill the constitutional mandate to fund education, put the safety and health of Alaskans at risk and kick the cost to provide services to local communities. For example, when the Governor cut the school bond debt reimbursement program, it resulted in higher property taxes for Anchorage residents, and next year we’ll need to absorb $41M, which is an increase of $420 per the average homeowner.
There is broad consensus that our state needs to do things differently. We need to manage our costs, provide a sustainable PFD and explore additional revenue sources. It’s critical for the State to partner with local communities, as my experience serving in local government has shown me that those closest to the problems often have the best ideas for solutions.
What is your vision for the Alaska Permanent Fund and the future of the dividend program?
It is essential that we protect and stabilize the Alaska Permanent Fund to ensure that it benefits future generations of Alaskans. We need a sustainable PFD that is part of a balanced budget that funds core services such as education and public safety. A sound fiscal plan will not only provide stability for industry and ensure that Alaska is a viable place to live for our children, but will protect the Fund and the PFD.
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?
Draining the budget reserve and putting our state on a course of economic destabilization will have devastating effects on Alaskans. Over the past eight years, the state budget has been cut to its lowest level since the 1970′s, and while some cuts may be necessary, we all know that we can’t cut our way to prosperity. As we continue to look for better and more cost efficient ways to provide services, the state must also explore additional revenue sources.
We need no nonsense representatives in Juneau who will work together to find the right solution for Alaska. While it would be ideal to have the state revenue in place to both pay for essential services and a full dividend, that simply isn’t the reality we face. I don’t support cutting services to pay for larger dividends. This would not only decimate school funding but would bankrupt the state and end the PFD for good.
What are your ideas to improve Alaska’s elementary and high schools?
As someone who has been deeply involved in Anchorage’s school system, I am continually impressed with Alaska’s educators, especially now as they’ve had to adapt to teaching during a pandemic. While there is always room for improvement, my experience tells me that cuts in the name of “efficiency” are not the way to improve our state’s schools.
Good schools need stability and the state must enact a responsible fiscal plan that will ensure adequate investment in education. We should be focusing on reducing the turnover rate that prevents us from keeping high quality teachers, offering competitive teacher compensation so we can attract the best, and ensuring that Alaska’s rural schools are connected to the outside world. Student performance measures must be based on best practices so that we can be assured that our children are getting a quality education and we are adequately preparing the next generation to enter the workforce.
What is your vision for the University of Alaska?
The University of Alaska is an important part of our state’s educational system, and a powerful economic engine. By making it easier for Alaskans to get a quality university education, we give our industries a pipeline of qualified workers. We also give our children a reason to stay in Alaska, to find work here, and help make our state a better place to live.
I believe that supporting our university system is one of the best investments we can make, and I will work to protect it.
What would you do to reduce high rates of sexual assault and domestic violence in Alaska?
There is no single solution to crime, especially the kind of personal, often hidden crimes of sexual assault and domestic violence. The best first step however is to help break the cycle of abuse so that it’s not perpetuated. Pre-K programs foster healthy children who are more likely to become healthy adults. I support increased access to drug and alcohol treatment programs, as well as increased public safety presence in rural areas. No victim should have to wait for days to receive help and all victims should be assured of support from law enforcement and the criminal justice system.
What are your ideas to stabilize, grow and diversify Alaska’s economy?
Consumer and business confidence has suffered because Alaska does not have a fiscal plan. This has hurt investment in Alaska, which we need in order to optimize our resources. We need to ensure that our state can provide the economic stability necessary to attract and retain business. One of the most important steps to achieving this is by ensuring that we maintain our bond rating, and do not deplete our budget reserve. Uncertainty about our state government’s ability to provide essential services and infrastructure will have a devastating effect on our economic future.
Investing in Alaska’s educational system is another way we can secure our state’s long term economic future. Bolstering our K-12 system, and the University of Alaska, helps make Alaska a viable place for families to live and it keeps our kids in Alaska, by giving them the training to compete for jobs in a global economy.
What’s your position on the proposed Pebble mine?
Mines can and have been developed safely, but there are always risks. The essential question is, are the benefits of the mineral resource and associated jobs worth the risk to the natural resources and associated livelihoods? In the case of the Pebble mine, I see no way in which the developers can reduce the risks enough through permitting requirements or mitigation measures to ensure the protection of the Bristol Bay salmon stream headwaters.
What other important issue would you like to discuss with voters?
Fostering a stable economy is about building real, long-term economic solutions. With decreased oil revenues and the global pandemic, we are in an economic crisis. I promise to work toward a stable, rational, economic plan that protects the PFD, drives innovation, and allows future generations of Alaskans to thrive in our great state.
Short-term solutions may be tempting, but our children don’t deserve to bear the burden of our mistakes. I promise to work hard, put people above politics, and bring a long-term perspective to Juneau.