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.
Carl Johnson | Democrat | Occupation: Tour operator/photographer | Age: 53 | Residence: Anchorage | U.S. Navy; Dispatcher/jailer, Cook County Sheriff’s Department, MN; Page, Minnesota House of Representatives; Law Clerk, Alaska Court System; Adjunct Faculty, Matanuska-Susitna College; Attorney; Supervisory Program Analyst, Office of Subsistence Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service | www.carl4alaska.com
Why are you running for office?
Decisions over the last decade have led us to a point where we have spent down our Constitutional Budget Reserve, are threatening the stability and sustainability of the Permanent Fund, and are making too drastic of cuts to essential services, infrastructure, public safety, and education. Alaska is at a crossroads. We are facing a fiscal crisis that needs to be addressed in a thoughtful way. We need to build a future where Alaska can be prosperous. I know that I can contribute and lead in a way that puts Alaska back on the right path.
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.
We had a plan in place at the state level on how to move from lockdown to the “new normal.” Unfortunately, we did not follow that plan as laid out, jumping from Phase Two to Phase Four too quickly. Messaging to travelers has been inconsistent and constantly changing, making Alaska a challenging place to visit when instead we could have been positioned to be the best place to travel. We have also mismanaged the federal aid intended to assist families and businesses in financially surviving. The State placed too many restrictions on what businesses could use the CARES Act funds for (and initially what businesses were eligible), and the State failed to staff the unemployment offices adequately early in the crisis to meet the increased demand for service. The State also dropped the ball early in the pandemic and should have provided more resources and guidance to schools in how they could effectively complete the school year.
What role should the state play in repairing economic damage in Alaska from the pandemic?
There needs to be a plan on how the economy is going to recover from the pandemic. I have not seen that yet - the focus has been on the public health aspect of managing the pandemic, which is important. The State needs to create a plan on what investments are going to be made, where, and how we are going to pay for those investments. This should be a joint effort by the Legislature and the Governor.
Describe two pressing issues facing your district. What do you plan to do about them if elected?
One of the issues often discussed in my district is infrastructure - many roads are in need of repair or modification to meet current use and needs. The other issue I hear people concerned about is general funding of essential government services - public safety and education. The solutions for both of these issues are addressed in later questions, so I will respond there.
How would you create a sustainable state operating budget that doesn’t borrow annually from the state’s savings to meet shortfalls?
When Alaska statehood was being considered, a primary concern raised was whether the state would be able to pay for itself. Part of those concerns were addressed in aspects of Article VIII of our Constitution, which requires that Alaskans receive the maximum benefit of our resources. So we need to examine if we are actually achieving that expectation. One large, untapped resource available for revenue is stranded natural gas on the North Slope. We need to find an economical way to deliver that gas to Pacific markets. An 800-mile pipeline to Cook Inlet or Prince William Sound is not economical. Rather, we must find a way to ship it directly from the North Slope, which is a possibility now due to our increasingly ice-free shipping lanes. The other way to address the budget is to grow the corpus of the Permanent Fund so that it is sustainable, which is another question to answer.
What is your vision for the Alaska Permanent Fund and the future of the dividend program?
We need to grow the size of the Permanent Fund so it is sustainable and can pay for both government and a dividend. The corpus of the Alaska Permanent Fund needs to be grown to a size where we can draw a 4-5% percent over market value (POMV) that is sufficient to pay for both general revenue and a dividend. Some suggest that number is about $100 billion. Making wise use of our natural resources is one path. We also need to find a way to remove the dividend as a political football, to provide consistency, reliability, and sustainability. Not everyone needs a dividend for their home finances, but many families do. Studies by the UAA Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) show that cutting dividends is harmful to many Alaskan families.
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?
Some project that deficit to be closer to $500 million. I do not support cutting essential government services. There are many things that we spend money on that are not essential, and I would not spend general revenue funds on those items until we are in a fiscal situation where we can afford it. Another factor to consider is that, according to ISER, every $100 million in budget cuts costs about 1,000 public and private sector jobs under a conservative estimate, about twice the number of jobs lost from an equal cut to the PFD. That would be a lot of jobs to cut during a recession, would impair the ability of our economy to recover, and would negatively impact thousands of Alaskans.
What are your ideas to improve Alaska’s elementary and high schools?
This is an area where we need to focus on investing. Education is the foundation for a healthy economy and a strong middle class. We need to create a better learning environment, which includes providing a universal pre-K, reduce class sizes in Anchorage (currently at about 35 students per teacher), improve broadband access for distance learning, and allow for flexibility in curriculum to expand Social Emotional Learning opportunities. We need to reexamine our funding formulas (currently costing a loss of about $24 million just for the Anchorage School District), and increase the Base Student Allocation (BSA). We need to find ways to get the best teachers, with emphasis on teacher recruitment and retention, housing for teachers in rural areas, and return to a defined benefit plan. And lastly, like with other areas of our state, we need to invest in building and maintaining the infrastructure necessary to ensure success.
What is your vision for the University of Alaska?
My vision is a world-class education facility that provides all avenues of education necessary to keep our youth in Alaska and provide an educated workforce to Alaskan businesses, from mining to fishing to tourism. That means a mixture of degree-oriented programs as well as vocational training and certification. We have lost too many programs that are valuable for a healthy, well-rounded university education. We need to restore those and provide opportunities here in the state. Restoring the University of Alaska system, and UAA in particular, could be a crucial part of our economy’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only will younger people need to develop their education, but older adults may also need the opportunity to retrain in order to adapt to what economy arises from the pandemic. This cannot be possible with a pared-down university, but one that is offering more opportunity in academic pursuits across all disciplines.
What would you do to reduce high rates of sexual assault and domestic violence in Alaska?
We need to fully invest in public safety at all levels. From VPSO programs to State Troopers, public defenders to prosecutors, every aspect of the criminal justice system in Alaska is underfunded. We need to provide victims the tools to recover and be protected, and law enforcement and prosecutors the tools they need to investigate, charge, and convict offenders. There have been several recommendations that have arisen from various studies of the issue. For example, the Alaska VPSO Working Group in the Legislature outlined several recommendations of changes to be made to that program. The State could also cooperate more with tribal governments that are a presence in the villages - in many cases more than the State is. I worked with a task force in Minnesota that included state and tribal representatives working on solutions on how to foster cooperation between courts and law enforcement agencies. I am eager to work on addressing this pressing problem.
What are your ideas to stabilize, grow and diversify Alaska’s economy?
We need to diversify and innovate our economy so that we will have stability despite the fluctuations of the commodities markets. There is no need for us to endure a recession every time the price of oil drops below $40 per barrel. This means investing in a diversity of sectors, and growing an economy based on renewable resources. As I noted in a commentary published in the Anchorage Daily News back in June, tourism could be a part of that. We could also invest more in renewable energy infrastructure, already a growing part of cutting energy costs in many villages. And we need to protect resources that are sustainable if properly managed, like our fisheries. Controlling the long term viability of our fisheries was, after all, one of the key considerations during the statehood debate as noted in William Egan’s speech to the delegates of the Alaska Constitutional Convention.
What’s your position on the proposed Pebble mine?
I am opposed to the development of the Pebble Mine, along with some 60% of all Alaskans and 80% of the residents of the region. Our constitution requires that we weigh considerations when developing our resources so that they are managed for conservation, on a sustained yield principle, and for the maximum benefit of Alaskans. We have the last healthy wild salmon runs on the planet. Nearly 50% of the world’s Sockeye Salmon supply is commercially harvested from the waters of Bristol Bay. There is not a single large-scale hard rock mine that has ever operated without causing some level of contamination to nearby surface or ground waters. The location of the Pebble deposit at the headwaters of streams that contribute to the Nushagak and Kvichak watersheds, as well as the network of interconnected ground water pathways in the area, makes it impossible to avoid some level of contamination. This is simply the wrong mine in the wrong place.
What other important issue would you like to discuss with voters?
Throughout my career, I have worked in all three branches of government, at the county, tribal, state and federal level. My experiences have taught me the importance of public service, of listening to constituents and keeping them informed, of working as part of a team to accomplish a mission, and sometimes making hard choices. When considering who you are going to vote for, you need to consider if the candidate is someone who is going to act in the public’s interest. This is not a time for people who will only work with members of their party. We have hard work to do, and we cannot get it done through partisan purism.