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.
JIM COOPER | Undeclared, Democratic nominee | Occupation: Retired military | Age: 72 | Residence: Palmer | Relevant experience or prior offices held: Palmer City Council, Palmer mayor, President Alaska Municipal League | jimcooperforalaska.com
Why are you running for office?
For too many years the Legislature has failed to provide a fully functional balanced budget that meets the needs of all Alaskans. We have failed to provide adequate services for our homeless, our victims of domestic violence and our children. There are answers but the prevailing leadership fails to look at all the options. They are only concerned with draconian budget cuts but there has to be a source of income to sustain the viable programs that help all Alaskans. Alaska has been rated number one, or near number one, in alcoholism, domestic violence, including child abuse, suicide and now homelessness. This is unacceptable and the Legislature needs to step up and quit partisan politics and do something to help solve these issues. My record shows I have the ability to “cross party lines” and get solutions to the problems we face. I am an independent thinker who listens to all sides and then am willing to make a decision that benefits ALL Alaskans, not just those who vote for you.
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.
There have been ups and downs. Alaska has been fortunate to have not been hit so hard by a large number of cases but to “eliminate” them we needed to have stricter guidelines. Science has proven that wearing masks, social distancing have a dramatic impact on reducing Covid-19. There should have been a mandate to adhere to the CDC recommendations. Having testing after getting off an airplane was a good call but there was little, if any, follow-up on whether people adhered to the 14 day quarantine.
What role should the state play in repairing economic damage in Alaska from the pandemic?
Alaska’s economy is based on small companies, over 50% of the private workforce is from small businesses and 99% of business in Alaska is small business. Finding capital to keep a business operational is one of the major hurdles. In 2019 the number one source of income was families. The state could help with this by offering low cost or zero cost loans, offer stable taxes and have a reliable fully functional budget.
Describe two pressing issues facing your district. What do you plan to do about them if elected?
Education funding and doctor shortage. Proper education funding is a cornerstone of our society. To have a good education is paramount to maintaining a vibrant community. I would take whatever steps legal and necessary to insure our education system is funded properly. Mat-Su has twice the number of patients to doctor ratio then the rest of Alaska or the rest of the U.S. This needs to be corrected. A healthy population begets a healthy community; families that can stay together, less missing of school or work - a more productive society. Again, whatever I could do to insure we can attract and keep good medical staff.
How would you create a sustainable state operating budget that doesn’t borrow annually from the state’s savings to meet shortfalls?
As everyone who manages their household budget knows, when things are tight, there are two things you must do. 1) Trim items from your expenditures that are nice to have but not required and 2) Ensure you have income to pay for those items that are required. The state is the same. A close look at the budget is required to make sure we don’t have a lot of “nice to have” items but equally important is the income stream. To be able to pay for the items we need an income stream is required. My choice is to get back the Billion dollars per year the oil companies are taking and look at a variety of taxes, e.g. increased gas tax, income tax and a well structured sales tax. Whatever the final solution contains, we have to be sure that the tax is not a burden on our lower income and senior population.
What is your vision for the Alaska Permanent Fund and the future of the dividend program?
The Permanent Fund is in excess of $65 billion dollars. It does generate approximately $5 billion a year in investment income. Of which a portion goes to PFD and state spending. To be able to maintain a PFD, the investment earnings have to continue to be at a high level. You cannot strip the Permanent Fund and maintain a PFD or contributions to the General Fund. As stated earlier, that is why additional sources of income need to be generated so as to be able to have a permanent Permanent Fund.
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?
All services need to be examined but I don’t see a lot, if any, fat in the programs. I think funds need to be reallocated among departments to maximize the programs we have. The repeal of SB 91 resulted in more people being sent to or back to jail. This results in an excess of $50,000 per year per person for all incarcerated and serious crime has not been abated. A better use of the money is in solutions to help rehabilitate the not serious offenders. The answer is not only cutting services but a obtaining a new source of income.
What are your ideas to improve Alaska’s elementary and high schools?
Better pay for the teachers. They are responsible to prepare our children so they may be productive members of society. That is a huge responsibility and they should be rewarded for all the hard, long hours they put in nurturing our children.
What is your vision for the University of Alaska?
The University is another area that needs to be fully funded. It is a fact that as the number of students graduate from a university increases, the Domestic Gross Product also increases. These graduates contribute immensely to our economy and society as a whole. Keeping them in Alaska would be an added benefit/
What would you do to reduce high rates of sexual assault and domestic violence in Alaska?
As mentioned earlier, Alaska is at the top of the list when it comes to these crimes and not much has been done about it over the last 2 decades. Unfortunately, not long after the dividend is sent out, these figures soar. I am not advocating eliminating the dividend but it could maybe be spread out over 12 months in lieu of a one time payment. Providing more advocates in the villages, more VPSO’s, more and better training and more income into the state budget to establish programs that would provide opportunities to empower and support girls and women, create protective environments in schools and workplace, support victims by having victim centered services, better treatment for victims and at-risk children are but a few of the things I would try to get done.
What are your ideas to stabilize, grow and diversify Alaska’s economy?
Alaska, for too long, has relied on the income from the severance taxes imposed on the oil companies. Those monies cannot be discounted but other sources of income need to be explored. Alaska needs to obtain and manage their own resources - forestry, fishing, mining, oil. Currently 60% of Alaska’s land is federally owned and that includes access to our resources, we need to get that back so we can take advantage of the monies to be generated by those resources. Taxes also need to be examined. Oil monies will not last forever and they will need to be replaced. An income tax, a well thought out sales tax and gas tax need to be explored. Alaska is also at the “center” of the transportation universe. By air, we are approximately 9 hours from all major areas. We need to take advantage of that fact and generate industry around that. We also need to generate increased tourism and health care.
What’s your position on the proposed Pebble mine?
No mine that is similar to Pebble has been unable to not pollute the surrounding area with their toxic runoff -none. They all have had failures in their retaining system. With even the slightest potential of that happening, and as a result, ruining the fishing industry in Bristol Bay, I am not in favor of approving this project.
What other important issue would you like to discuss with voters?
I would like everyone to know that after my 26 years in the Coast Guard that I have learned how to tackle difficult problems and learned how to work with different people with different opinions and come up with solutions that are workable for all.