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.
NATASHA VON IMHOF | Republican | Occupation: State senator | Age: 50 | Residence: Anchorage | Relevant experience or prior offices held: Anchorage School Board 2012-2015 Alaska State Senate 2016-present | www.natashaforalaska.com
Why are you running for office?
I would be honored to continue serving in the state senate to make certain Alaska remains a place where future generations can find jobs and raise a family. I am very concerned with the future of our state. We have some really tough issues facing us and I want to help steer the ship away from the fiscal cliff. I have the desire and willingness to serve, as well as a comprehensive background, particularly in finance, which I think will help in today’s environment.
I truly love this state and have raised my family here. We are not going anywhere. This state is so amazing it continues to blow me away with the vast wilderness, the opportunities, and the remarkable people who have passion and grit to build businesses and make a life here, in this sometimes dark and cold climate.
I love it here and there is no place I would rather be. That is why I want to serve.
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.
Yes, the governor has done a good job allowing each individual city and borough to decide what is best for its residents, as well as the legislature appropriating federal CARES Act funds to cities and towns to decide on their own the best ways to use it.
When Alaska first saw cases of the virus, state leaders instituted a “Stay Put” order. The logic behind “flattening the curve” was to not overload hospitals. Doctors and researchers learned about the virus at warp speed, figuring out how it affected people, as well as develop effective treatments.
Now, new information and data has emerged, including benefits of wearing a face mask, T-cell immunity, and therapies that are most effective. It is important that accurate information regarding individual risk for each demographic be communicated.
My responsibility as a legislator is to balance efforts to slow contagion, versus efforts to cause the least harm to the economy, people’s livelihoods, and long-term mental health.
What role should the state play in repairing economic damage in Alaska from the pandemic?
In the upcoming year, it will be imperative that we invest money in our state to stimulate the economy. The state must look at revenue generating projects, new and better roads to access resources and connect communities, and utilize the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA) for low interest loans to Alaskan businesses.
The state can also do the following:
1. Streamline permitting and inspections to speed up projects and thus jobs;
2. Work with stakeholders to build roads and utilities to make new sites accessible;
3. Provide small grants to leverage larger amounts of private and other funding; and
4. Engage in public/private partnerships to help projects be competitive.
Lastly, Fiscal Year 2020 and 2021 are unique due to COVID and the use of federal CARES Act funds to help balance budgets. It’s important that state leaders continue to work with our federal delegation to ensure CARES Act funding may be used for revenue replacement at the municipal level.
Describe two pressing issues facing your district. What do you plan to do about them if elected?
When I go door to door to people’s homes, constituents are asking: “When can my kids go back to school? Will I have a job in a year? Will I be able to pay my bills in a year?” The concerns are less about specific roads, parks, or neighborhood issues. People are far more concerned about the big themes that affect everyone around the state, like education and the economy.
As a legislator, I will continue to talk to and work with school districts around the state and the administration to determine when schools can open safely for all students. Regarding the economy, please see my answer to question 3.
How would you create a sustainable state operating budget that doesn’t borrow annually from the state’s savings to meet shortfalls?
I believe in continued downward pressure on the budget. We need a spending cap, where all spending is under the cap, including the PFD. I will not consider a broad-based tax until our spending is in order.
Some cost saving ideas:
a. Consolidation of insurance contracts for state asset and liability coverage.
b. An All-Payers Claims Database for health insurance claims. If we know how and where state employee healthcare and Medicaid dollars are being spent, we can zero in on high cost drivers and see where we can adjust policy. Otherwise, we are just guessing.
c. Decreasing regulations on state procurement for certain purchases for faster turnaround and to obtain better bulk rate pricing.
d. Decrease regulations on Alaska businesses to help reduce barriers and streamline processes and less bureaucracy.
e. State employees should be asked where they think savings could be made. No reduction is too small. Provide employees with an anonymous survey and incentives for savings.
What is your vision for the Alaska Permanent Fund and the future of the dividend program?
I worry about the overall health of the Permanent Fund and the ability for the fund to pay out dividends in the future. If the state withdraws more than 5% of the total Percent of Market Value (POMV) in order to pay a full statutory dividend, let alone back dividends, we will liquidate the Earnings Reserve Account (ERA) and then not be able to fund dividends or the annual POMV draw at all. No single act would force a broad-based tax on working Alaskans faster.
Over the past seven years, the state has spent almost all of our savings, so the next target is the Permanent Fund ERA. This is not sustainable. The day of reckoning will be here in 2021.
I advocate creating a budget where the state only spends what we earn each year. This means instituting a spending cap that includes the dividend under it.
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 recently said, “We don’t have a fiscal crisis; we have a priority crisis.”
People ask me, “What’s the big deal paying everyone $1,500?” Well, it costs the state nearly a $1 billion to do that, which is a quarter of the state’s whole general fund budget. That will create a huge budget deficit, force an income tax, and leave us nothing for roads to access resources and connect communities, as well as to develop projects that attract investment and provide much-needed jobs.
I believe in paying the largest dividend we can afford, and we must continue to find savings and efficiencies to decrease the cost of government. But using our savings to pay out a large dividend is short term thinking. It does nothing to invest in the long-term sustainability of our state, or create jobs which is essential to get people off Medicaid, and it does nothing to build national and global confidence in our state so that investors want to invest in Alaska.
What are your ideas to improve Alaska’s elementary and high schools?
COVID has given the state a lens inside tele-education, and if it becomes more of the norm, then investment in broadband makes sense. This could divert funds away from brick and mortar school construction.
I find it telling that the Lower Yukon School District recently purchased a hotel in Anchorage to send their high school students to King Tech High School. Is this a trend for the future?
I have studied student performance state-wide and the two greatest factors that influence student achievement are the quality of the teacher, and stress or support at home. These factors are the same for kids in any school and community, whether it’s in person or on-line, charter or neighborhood, private or public. Legislators must work to address both of those factors by encouraging districts to recruit and support high quality educators, as well as working with non-profits, native corporations, private businesses and municipalities to help provide essential social support for families in need.
What is your vision for the University of Alaska?
I envision a university that focuses on its core competencies which include Arctic studies, healthcare, engineering, education, and other areas that directly support Alaskan industries and Alaskan jobs.
The university is governed by the UA Board of Regents. It is imperative that Alaskans volunteer to serve on this board and lend their area of expertise to guide this important institution.
What would you do to reduce high rates of sexual assault and domestic violence in Alaska?
We all must continue to speak about this epidemic across Alaska. We must bring these issues to light so they aren’t ignored. Children who are abused are unable to focus on schoolwork, so even a basic education – the start to becoming a productive, healthy adult – isn’t able to happen.
Men, women and children that are abused need to know they will be heard and supported if they speak up and report abuse. Efforts in rural areas to prevent retaliation and quickly remove offenders is key. If victims feel unsafe to speak up, we can’t help.
Domestic violence and sexual abuse are overwhelmingly a function of alcohol and substance abuse. I will continue to fight for funding for treatment facilities. We must end this vicious cycle.
We also need a vibrant economy. It may sound trite, but data shows that, when people are working, rates of abuse go down, especially in the winter months.
What are your ideas to stabilize, grow and diversify Alaska’s economy?
We need a state asset list to identify opportunities in tourism, fish, minerals, oil and gas, timber and the Arctic. Then we target investors.
We look at our state financing corporations to offer grants or low interest loans to kick start projects and entice national and global investors to put their money in Alaska.
The state can keep taxes, regulations and policies consistent over time (Vote No on Ballot Measure #1). I further expanded a few more things the state can do in question #3.
Some ideas discussed with business leaders across the state:
1. Selective logging (less climate affect than steel smelting)
2. South Denali visitor center
3. Alternative energy like hydro, solar, small nuclear and wind
4. Tram to Eagle Glacier for people chasing snow year round
5. Data farms 6. Global e-commerce distribution center
7. Seward Dock expansion (a great example of public private partnership, which I highly support)
8. Cobalt and copper mining for alternative energy batteries
What’s your position on the proposed Pebble mine?
Let the rigorous permitting process continue.
What other important issue would you like to discuss with voters?
I want to continue serving in the state senate to make sure Alaska remains a place where future generations can find jobs and raise a family. Alaska has the vast resources, as well as people with the grit and creativity needed to turn our economy around, no matter the challenges. We have to work together, and keep a long term approach in mind as we make decisions this next legislative session.