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.
Tom Begich | Democrat | Occupation: Musician/consultant | Age: 59 | Residence: Anchorage | Relevant experience or prior offices held: Current state senator for District J, minority leader. Extensive background in the fields of justice, education, and public policy for over 35 years. Past legislative Assistant to two majority leaders in the House, and a Senate Majority Caucus chair. Over 30 years managing a strategic consulting and public policy firm. Past publisher of an award-winning public policy magazine. | www.tombegichforalaska.com
Why are you running for office?
I am running for reelection to try and complete work on a sound fiscal plan that will sustain Alaska for generations, to help Alaska move from its dependency on non-renewable resources to a robust renewable economy, and to strengthen Alaska’s education system (through adequate resources, Pre K, supporting a strong University, and ensuring a stable education budget).
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.
I do not believe we have. We started out right - with early identification, clear health mandates, and continued public presentations on COVID. As the pandemic progressed we failed to communicate with each other and the public well. In particular, when the Governor wrote the RPLs for CARES ACT Funding (the documents that allowed for passing federal funds to communities and businesses) they were not written correctly. Attempts to return to Juneau to properly write these RPLs and attempts by House/Senate Leadership to work with the Governor to rewrite these, for the most part, failed. While this failure rests on how the RPLs were initially constructed by the Governor, they could have been repaired through dialogue. Political differences interfered with this process. Further, when rewritten, these were poorly executed leading to business failures, community uncertainty, and money that still has not made it to the streets. The Legislature needs to return to Juneau to fix our response.
What role should the state play in repairing economic damage in Alaska from the pandemic?
Until we have a working vaccine, which the CDC says will not be until the 2nd Qut. of 2021, we must plan for transition resources. COVID’s impact on oil and gas prices has dug a hole in our budget that we need to pave over. So what can we do? 1) Encourage the federal government to pass the HEROES Act. This will bring in bridge funds of approx. $1.5 B for the coming year; 2) keep our COVID case and death count down by ensuring strong public health policies - to protects our population and local businesses and enhance our ability to be an end destination for tourism (this also strengthens our ability to reopen our economy and, as Americans are kept from overseas destinations, we can market ourselves as a vacation alternative for America); 3) develop alt. revenue resources to offset the budget deficit this pandemic has added to, and not be afraid to use earnings reserves to help carry us through this crisis; 4) help Alaskans with mortgage, rental, unemployment, and health care relief.
Describe two pressing issues facing your district. What do you plan to do about them if elected?
Homelessness and business failure. The latter is a direct result of the pandemic impact on local businesses and tourism. Ensuring bridge loans, mortgage and rental relief (for landlords, businesses, and individuals), and enhanced unemployment payments until our economy reopens is critical to resolving this. For Homelessness, some things we might do include: 1) ensure that a coherent, comprehensive plan that address those suffering homelessness along a continuum is enacted (like the City’s), including housing options, but also ensuring we have support for families at the risk of losing housing so they do not fall into homelessness; 2) ensuring adequate mental health and substance use services for our chronic homeless population; 3) ensuring our transient populations - in and out migrators - have strong economies and affordable living options in their own home communities if from in-state; and finally 4) ensuring new options for services are located near medical and support facilities.
How would you create a sustainable state operating budget that doesn’t borrow annually from the state’s savings to meet shortfalls?
1) stick to a Percent of Market Value model that draws between 5 - 5.5% of resources from the Permanent Fund annually to Fund Government; 2) revise oil and gas taxes to reduce the per barrel tax credit (if Prop 1 fails) by at least $4; 3) enact a modest income tax that is based on a flat rate of your federal income tax liability; 4) increase the ability to tax oil and gas property by 10 mils, with those funds designated (we cannot constitutionally delegate funds) to infrastructure development and education; 5) address smaller fees that have been discussed for the past few years such as increasing the Motor Fuels tax, adding an education/wage tax ($30 from first paycheck each year), and other user fees; 6) continue to seek efficiencies in Government where feasible; 7) develop a more sustainable Dividend formula and enact it in the Constitution to remove this as a political issue. There are lily other solutions, these would serve as my starting point in the discussion.
What is your vision for the Alaska Permanent Fund and the future of the dividend program?
The Permanent Fund is the long-term future for the state’s sustainable budget. As Sen. Stedman has observed, we need to maximize the value of the Fund so that it can achieve the greatest level of earning and provide us a sustainable - and renewable - revenue stream through the POMV draw. If we reach a value of $80 Billion in the Fund, we would near that target. $100 - $120 billion guarantees it. To do this, we will have to consider revising the Dividend formula, though we should retain a substantive Dividend - as this is our only real connection between the citizen and the Fund itself. However we do this, we should Constitutionalize the final approach to ensure that we are clear that we are doing this as a compact with our citizens. We also will need to enact a series of other revenue measures (which I have described elsewhere), to ensure that we can build the capital in the Fund. These include reduction in Per Barrel Oil and Gas tax credits, an income tax, and other revenue measures.
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 do not support cutting services to pay a larger dividend. I think that is an unnecessary mistake that only damages the long-term integrity of our state’s economy and our safety net. I have indicated that a sustainable future includes a robust Dividend that is sustainable along with a series of new revenue measures to ensure we retain the quality of live that fully serves our citizens. Cuts vs. Dividends is a false choice.
What are your ideas to improve Alaska’s elementary and high schools?
I sponsored the Alaska Reads Act or, as I call it now, the Preparing Readers and Educating Kids Act (Pre-K Act - SB 6), to 1) enact universal voluntary, evidence-based Pre-K in Alaska; 2) enhance and develop strong, consistent reading curriculum; 3) ensure meaningful support from the Department of Education for school districts; and 4) develop effective approaches to teacher retention and recruitment to improve educational outcomes for students. I did this in a bipartisan matter with the Governor and with support from Republicans and Democrats in both bodies. If the Session had not been shortened by the pandemic, I believe SB 6 would have become law. I will be reintroducing this bill. Alongside this support, we should also fund education early to allow districts certainty in budgeting so they can compete for teachers from across the country; enhance our UA education school; and provide greater support to the Base Student Allocation to catch up with years of chronic underfunding.
What is your vision for the University of Alaska?
I think it is essential to maintain the three core campuses of the University - each with a strong Liberal Arts component, and with hard science or occupational specialties tailored to the campuses (Fisheries, Education, Resource Development, Logistics, Climate Science, Agriculture, etc...). I think Administrative overhead should be reduced at the central UA offices, with more autonomy at the regional level. I also think efforts to ensure transferability of credits should continue, to ensure any student can experience the same core curriculum at any campus. I would like to retain reasonable in-state tuition, enhance the giving to the UA Foundation, and use some General Obligation bonding to help address the $1Billion backlog in University Deferred Maintenance. I was deeply upset at the loss of accreditation at the UAA campus for their Education School. The University must play a crucial role in developing home grown teachers - this is essential to our State’s future.
What would you do to reduce high rates of sexual assault and domestic violence in Alaska?
Instability in our rural economies; lack of available resources for domestic violence, substance abuse, and mental health; and lack of education or employment opportunity add to the pressure underlying violence and abuse. Alaskans must have access to resources and opportunity. I will continue to advocate for lower rural energy costs, better bandwidth, and strong education systems to stabilize the economic and social environment. This relieves pressures that lead to violence and assault. We can also support the FBI’s efforts to identify missing and murdered indigenous women in Alaska; continue support and training for our VPSOs; continue support of telehealth and on-site clinical substance use and mental health services; support tribal courts and restorative justice to address crime locally; and prioritize the backlog of untested rape kits and pass Rep. Tarr’s Rape Kit reform bill so we catch perpetrators before they harm again. This will result in real, sustainable change.
What are your ideas to stabilize, grow and diversify Alaska’s economy?
Stabilization requires breaking our dependency on oil revenue. As I have stated before, this means 1) growing the principle of the Permanent Fund and using an effective POMV approach to the Fund; 2) reducing per barrel tax credits on oil and gas; 3) enacting a modest income tax; 4) developing other diverse revenue sources (Oil and gas property, motor fuels, and education wage revenue)
What’s your position on the proposed Pebble mine?
I oppose Pebble Mine. As the late Senator Stevens once said, “…it is the wrong mine for the wrong place.”
What other important issue would you like to discuss with voters?
I have mentioned the importance of deferred maintenance. In Alaska we now have a backlog of over $2 Billion in deferred maintenance. We must tackle this with a combination of Bonds (I support a State General Obligation Bond), and policy that devotes some part of our state revenue to erasing this backlog. We must also continue to pay our unfunded liabilities for Teacher and Public Employee retirements; ensure we continue to retain a working Medicaid system for our underinsured residents; and assist our communities in rural Alaska in their efforts to improve sewer and water, transfer to cheaper than diesel alternative energies, and develop effective broadband connectivity.