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.
BILL WIELECHOWSKI | Democrat | Occupation: Attorney | Age: 52 | Residence: East Anchorage | Relevant experience or prior offices held: I am currently on the Senate Finance Committee and serve as Chair of the Department of Military & Veterans and Judiciary Budget Subcommittees; I have degrees in Finance and Law from Seton Hall University; Hearing Officer for the Alaska Department of Labor Workforce Development 1999-2004; Former President, Northeast Community Council, 2003; former member, Anchorage Planning & Zoning Commission, former member, Anchorage Budget Advisory Committee | Billwforsenate.Org
Why are you running for office?
Alaskans work harder than ever - if they can find jobs, yet their wages are stagnant, pensions and retirement benefits are drastically cut or eliminated and health care and education costs have skyrocketed. Recent studies show the United States is no longer a functioning democracy where the will of the people prevails, but instead a government controlled largely by huge organized business interests. The system is rigged against the average person. I have always worked hard to be a voice for the average Alaskan.
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.
On the positive side, the legislature quickly passed legislation to help protect Alaskans by increasing unemployment benefits and banning evictions, vehicle repossessions and price gouging during this pandemic. Unfortunately, a poor job has been done dispersing federal funds. The legislature abdicated its responsibility to appropriate these funds and had to be sued to go into special session. The appropriations were written incorrectly by the Governor, which resulted in months of delays in dispersing these funds. As we look forward, hopefully another round of federal funds is coming and I would urge the legislature to immediately convene to properly appropriate these funds.
What role should the state play in repairing economic damage in Alaska from the pandemic?
The state should eliminate unnecessary bureaucratic red tape and foster a healthy small business environment. While we have limited funds, the expectation is that another round of federal funds is coming. The legislature must immediately convene and get these funds out to Alaskans who need the help.
Describe two pressing issues facing your district. What do you plan to do about them if elected?
Jobs and public safety. SB 21, which massively cut oil taxes has been an absolute jobs killer. Just four weeks after it was passed, BP laid off 475 employees, while oil was near $100 barrel. The oil industry has since cut another 5,000 jobs, while increasing the percentage of nonresidents. The loss of state revenue from SB 21 has meant virtually no state capital budget for years - and a huge loss of jobs. I believe we should take advantage of historically low interest rates and issue a general obligation bond for deferred maintenance and infrastructure.
Public safety remains a concern. We need more public safety officers. Because 90% of all crimes are substance abuse related, and 50% of those in the criminal justice system have mental health issues, we need to focus on treatment and rehabilitation.
How would you create a sustainable state operating budget that doesn’t borrow annually from the state’s savings to meet shortfalls?
I support continued responsible efficiencies and consolidations in state government, but we can’t cut our way out of this deficit. For decades, oil revenues provided 90% of our state revenue. With the passage of SB 21, oil now provides a fraction of that. And the promises of more state revenue, jobs, production, investment and a growing PFD if we massively cut our share of our oil wealth have all proven false. We must first fix our broken oil tax system, and the voters have a chance to do that with Ballot Measure One.
What is your vision for the Alaska Permanent Fund and the future of the dividend program?
The founders of the Permanent Fund Dividend program saw a system where those who were politically connected got an inordinate share of our resource wealth and instead wanted to ensure every Alaskan got a share of our oil wealth.
The PFD is critical to my East Anchorage and JBER constituents. It lifts tens of thousands of Alaskans out of poverty each year and helps many pay for heat, food and education. I believe Alaskans deserve consistency and stability regarding their dividends, instead of having to beg for it every year. For the past eight years, I have sponsored legislation to put the PFD in the Constitution. I believe any changes to the dividend program should be voted on by the people.
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 believe we should cut the over $1 billion per year in oil tax credits that we have allowed since SB 21 passed.
What are your ideas to improve Alaska’s elementary and high schools?
We need to stop treating our teachers and kids as pawns every year in our budget process. Let’s inflation-proof the base student allocation and forward fund education so schools don’t have to lay off teachers every year. Alaska is the only state in the nation where teachers, firefighters, police and public employees have no defined benefit pension and no Social Security. This make it very hard to attract and retain people. We should bring back a defined benefit program for no additional cost to the state or local communities.
What is your vision for the University of Alaska?
Alaskans deserve a world class university system that keeps our best and brightest here. Many jobs in Alaska don’t need a college degree, so the University should provide more vocational training opportunities. We should continue the University Scholarship Program to encourage young Alaskans to continue their education here.
What would you do to reduce high rates of sexual assault and domestic violence in Alaska?
There are dozens of villages with no public safety presence. I have supported increasing funding for Troopers and VPSOs. We need rape kits readily available and nurses and professionals who are trained in administering those. 90% of the crime in Alaska is substance abuse related. We must significantly increase rehabilitation efforts and substance abuse treatments. Lastly, we must continue our efforts to change the culture of violence.
What are your ideas to stabilize, grow and diversify Alaska’s economy?
Alaska should be a leader in Arctic research, renewable and alternative energy and tourism. We must continue putting policies in place to encourage these things.
What’s your position on the proposed Pebble mine?
I oppose the Pebble Mine. Bristol Bay hosts the largest wild salmon run in the world, and tens of thousands of Alaskans rely on these fish for subsistence and jobs.
It’s the wrong mine in the wrong place.
What other important issue would you like to discuss with voters?
It’s been an honor to represent East Anchorage and JBER. As the state with the highest percentage of Veterans in America, and a large number of active duty military, I have worked on many pieces of legislation to help our military. I have sponsored legislation to ensure those who are deployed can still receive their PFDs while defending our nation. I have fought for University of Alaska acceptance of military training and experience, for assistance for unemployed and homeless Veterans, for occupational licensure for military families and more. I’ve been honored to be recognized by the Vietnam Veterans of America and the National Guard Association of the United States for my advocacy on behalf of those who serve our nation.
I have also been honored to be named a “Legislative Champion” three different years by the Public Safety Employees Association and have also received an award from John Walsh of America’s Most Wanted for my public safety efforts.
I’m always willing to sit down and discuss issues and work across the aisle to solve our problems. I would appreciate your support!