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.
Geran Tarr | Democrat | Occupation: Legislator | Age: 45 | Residence: Anchorage | Relevant experience or prior offices held: I am a longtime community volunteer and former Airport Heights Community Council President. I also spent nine years serving on the Anchorage Women’s Commission. I currently serve as the treasurer for the national organization Women In Government, that serves women state legislators across the country. I also serve on the Alaska Resilience Initiative. | www.tarrforalaska.com
Why are you running for office?
We work for the people. I never forget that. I am honored to be the voice for my neighbors and fight on their behalf. I’ve been working really hard taking on some of our most difficult issues related to domestic violence, sexual assault, and child abuse, and every year we’ve been getting legislation passed to address these issues and are making progress. I have a track record of getting things done and working with others to address difficult issues. We have important issues before us and I am ready to work with others to solve those problems.
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 Governor failed to offer any leadership in response to the coronavirus pandemic. He put together a poorly developed plan to avoid working with the legislature and then he rushed it through. This was to avoid having to answer questions about his PFD plan that damages the Permanent Fund forever. Sadly, he had enough support in the Republican Minority to avoid any special sessions so he didn’t call one and Republican Minority members in the House didn’t support one. This meant that the child care providers that were promised $30 million from this administration never got the funding that they were promised. We have been receiving desperate emails from childcare providers all summer. Parents have been writing desperate editorials about how necessary childcare is for the economy to recover and for parents to get back to work. For business owners, it was worse. The business relief program was a total failure. All of these pleas fell on the deaf ears of the Governor and House Republicans.
What role should the state play in repairing economic damage in Alaska from the pandemic?
The state has an incredibly important role to play in economic recovery. First, there are still millions and millions of dollars of CARES Act money out there. The legislature needs to come together as quickly as possible and figure out how those funds can be used before the deadline. It would be such a tragedy if any of those dollars went unused at this time when they’re such a desperate need across the state. The state could fund additional rental and mortgage relief, both for homeowners and renters and for business owners, and that would go along way to helping Alaskans and the economic recovery. The state should absolutely be involved in supporting child care delivery and we should invest more into those services now that there are additional safety requirements that are more costly and because of the limited attendance requirements we need to actually find a way to have more of these offerings. The same goes for school districts and the University that need additional support.
Describe two pressing issues facing your district. What do you plan to do about them if elected?
Public Safety and Racial and Economic Justice - On public safety, I have been a leader in efforts to make our neighborhoods safer, ranging from investments in law enforcement to multi year efforts to address interpersonal violence in Alaska to addressing gun violence to ongoing advocacy for substance misuse treatment and mental health services. I also believe in and support community level interventions and to that end have organized community and park cleanup’s, emergency preparedness training for neighbors, green dot bystander intervention training for neighbors, Mental Health First Aid, and more.
On economic and racial justice, I have introduced and will continue to push living wages and the need for workplace policies that allow working class and low income families to succeed. I have pushed and will continue to push for systemic change to address systemic racism and classism. People are working very hard and they aren’t getting ahead is because of systemic issues.
How would you create a sustainable state operating budget that doesn’t borrow annually from the state’s savings to meet shortfalls?
One of the big failures about how the budget problem has been addressed is just looking at it from where to cut. The reason that approach is a failure is because if you just cut a service it does not reduce the demand for that service. Instead, it only means access to the service is not available for those in need. If you put this in the context of health or safety it’s easy to understand how cutting a service that someone needs could lead to a worse and more costly outcome. That has been what the state has done so far and is why the state is not saving any money and problems are getting worse. Instead, we should be approaching the budget problem by asking the question of how do you reduce the demand for those services? When we look at cost drivers with things like public safety, the court system, office of children services, other public social safety net programs, and more, it’s easy to see how reducing the demand for these services with less costly alternatives could save a lot.
What is your vision for the Alaska Permanent Fund and the future of the dividend program?
In Alaska, our natural resources are considered a common property resource. Therefore, we are all equal shareholders when it comes to the permanent fund. As the name suggests, my vision is that the permanent fund will be permanent. This means it can’t be overspent so significantly that it can’t recover for the long term. A dividend should be given to all Alaskans equally. The legislature needs to address the issue of whether or not to change the formula immediately because the ongoing fight over the dividend has brought government to a standstill. This is totally unacceptable. I will not support any plan that disproportionately impacts low income and working Alaskans. It is wrong that so far poor children, seniors, and elders have contributed more to the budget problem through dividend reductions then Alaskans in much better position to contribute.
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?
Generally speaking, I do not support cutting services. We have cut for a number of years and many departments and operations are operating with a lack of capacity to do the work necessary. At this time, it’s also becoming increasingly harder to even recruit individuals into state employment because of the uncertainty. We do need the best and brightest at our state departments because the work is so important and we need to have a government that would attract those employees to service. The binary choice here is false. There are other revenue options, including the oil tax proposal on the ballot this fall. There are also other measures that the state could consider. What we need now our leaders with the courage to take votes on difficult issues ranging from the permanent fund to revenue to cuts to long-term planning. That courage has been missing.
What are your ideas to improve Alaska’s elementary and high schools?
Invest in pre-K to provide more equity in access to education. We know the earliest years are most important for brain development and where we are seeing tremendous difference in children from means versus children from other backgrounds. Offering pre-K really is the answer to improving Alaska’s elementary and high schools. Beyond that, we need to provide enough support for small class sizes, individual learning, and access to counseling and health services that all students need. More recently there is an effort to increase curriculum to be more representative of the diversity of students. I strongly support that effort.
What is your vision for the University of Alaska?
The university is an economic engine for our state and needs to be viewed and valued as such. This is where the engineers come from to work on the North Slope. This is where the nurses come from to work in our hospitals. This is where the teachers come from to work in our schools. The continual attacks on the University need to stop. Like all public institutions, the cost of healthcare and the cost of healthcare for retirees is weighing down the system. Those big issues need to be addressed and separated from the overall cost of everyday operations. More thought and long-term planning needs to go into capital spending because it is absolutely absurd that we would have campuses filled with new buildings while we are cutting programs. The programs could exist in old buildings. The University of Alaska needs to be a world-class university with strong state support, strong public private partnership’s, and affordable tuition that makes it accessible to all students.
What would you do to reduce high rates of sexual assault and domestic violence in Alaska?
I have been laser focused on addressing these issues while in office. Our first effort was to pass Erin’s Law and Bree’s Law to address our unacceptably and chronically high rates of child sexual abuse and teen dating violence. Following that effort, I have been working on a multi year Rape Kit Reform Initiative. We have passed several pieces of legislation that are making lasting, systemic change. For example, now for the first time ever all rape kits in Alaska will be tested. Also, we have put a time limit so that all rape kits have to be tested within a year. It used to take two or more years for this to happen. It will take many years for survivors to have trust in the system, but I am committed to working as hard as I can to make as much positive change as possible. What has been incredible in doing this work are the stories that individual Alaskans are willing to share with me and how often people tell me this work is making a difference in their lives. We need a lot of healing.
What are your ideas to stabilize, grow and diversify Alaska’s economy?
We have underdeveloped industries in agriculture and adventure tourism and I have been working hard to increase opportunities. In agriculture, we know that Alaskans spend over $4 billion every year on food purchases. At this time, just 5% of the food that Alaskans are purchasing is grown or produced in state. There really is unlimited potential in developing both agricultural markets for daily consumption and opportunities for product production. With adventure tourism, the federal government just started documenting the value of this multibillion dollar industry. Alaska ranks high among all places for economic impact of adventure tourism. Our public lands provide so much opportunity and could be the basis for many more sustainable dollars coming into our economy. The state invested more than $6 billion in cash credits for the oil and gas industry because leaders say it’s expensive to develop here and they need incentives. Imagine if just a fraction was used in these other industries.
What’s your position on the proposed Pebble mine?
I oppose Pebble Mine.
What other important issue would you like to discuss with voters?
When evaluating candidates, Alaskans should really ask whether the person they are supporting is someone that will work with others to get things done. No one will get everything that they want in the legislature, but far too many people that have been in service are refusing to compromise and that is hurting Alaskans. I am proud of my record of getting dozens of bills passed by working cooperatively in a bipartisan way with colleagues to figure out solutions to big issues facing our state. We need more people in the legislature willing to do that.