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Young Alaskans to legislators: Don't leave our future bleak, pass a plan

  • Author: Nathaniel Herz
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published January 17, 2016

Here are two competing visions for how this year's session of the Alaska Legislature might end.

In one, a group of cheerful state residents stands before orderly buildings and snowcapped peaks, under a sunlit sky. "Oh, this economy is just so stable," one of the people says.

Another darker version depicts the same group covered in blood, their smiles replaced with gasps, and the buildings afire.

"This economy is terrible -- oh no!" squeals one resident. "Recession!"

The alternate realities might sound far-fetched -- and it turns out the squealing residents were made of cardboard and the blood was actually Sriracha hot sauce. But for a new group of young Alaskans, the stakes of this year's legislative session, which begins Tuesday, are high enough that they've spent the last six months volunteering on an initiative to inform their peers and others about the state's fiscal crisis.

Their public campaign is scheduled to launch Monday, with the release of a fundraising video showing the group's two visions of a bleak or prosperous future for the state -- depending on whether lawmakers take action.

The effort comes as legislators appear as far away as ever from reaching a compromise to resolve the state's troubled finances. To reconfigure the state's budget and tap the billions of dollars in a reserve account of the Alaska Permanent Fund -- a step Gov. Bill Walker says is needed to stave off economic collapse -- will likely require a compromise in the Legislature, since it will take a three-fourths vote of the House and Senate.

In the House, that means Walker's plan would require votes from both the Republican-led majority and the Democratic minority -- neither of which has lent much support to Walker's proposal since he announced it last month.

Members of both parties have praised Walker for at least taking an initiative, and some centrist lawmakers say they could get comfortable with the proposed changes to the Permanent Fund. But others have voiced skepticism, with some Democrats saying they're uncomfortable with the idea of paying smaller dividends to lower-income constituents, and Republicans saying they want to reduce the size of government before approving new sources of revenue.

"I honestly don't think the Legislature will act on revenue enhancements," Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, said in a phone interview. "It's unfortunate, because we're kicking the can down the road."

Other bills expected to draw attention during the session include Senate Bill 114, introduced last year, which would also restructure the Permanent Fund to help pay for state government. It's sponsored by Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage.

Following last year's battles over expansion of the public Medicaid health-care program, Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, still has a bill to change and reform the program, Senate Bill 74, stuck in the Senate Finance Committee, which he co-chairs.

Lawmakers have also introduced new bills to extend the Legislature's 90-day session to 120 days, to bar marriage in prisons, to allow Alaskans to develop their own fish hatcheries, and to raise the minimum wage to $15.

Legislators who don't have seats on the House and Senate finance committees should have spare time to vet those ideas. But the debate over the state's fiscal crisis, and Walker's proposal, is expected to dominate this year's session.

The new group of young activists, calling themselves Our Alaska, says putting off action to fix the budget is unacceptable. It's trying to rally people to a more organized response that could push legislators into action to do three things at once: cut spending, boost revenue, and rely on the state's savings.

It's a loose collaborative that claims more than 100 people, linked through social media and digital tools, and spanning the political spectrum.

"We know that action is not going to happen from within the halls of power," said Erin Harrington, 38, one of Our Alaska's co-founders. "We can either sit around and let the existing, comfortable leadership -- who's basically all riding on their retirement checks -- figure out the future. Or we can be actively involved in it."

The group's meeting last week was at the Boardroom, a shared workspace in downtown Anchorage that doubles as Our Alaska's de facto headquarters. There was a bottle of Champagne and a box of wine, several laptops and an iPad, with one member patched in from Sitka over the Internet on Skype. Present in Anchorage were employees and executives at nonprofits; small business owners; an employee of the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce; and political consultants who have worked for Republicans and Democrats.

Several have experience as legislative staff, and partway through the meeting they were joined by the youngest member of the Alaska Legislature, 26-year-old Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka.

The main topic of conversation was the group's fundraising video on the website Kickstarter -- a two-minute production shot on a $130 budget, with about $60 of that going toward "stupid T-shirts," said Ian Laing, 37, the director. It features the Sriracha-drenched cardboard figures, a cigar-wielding politician, and a unicorn sitting at a typewriter in a quirky pitch to fund more outreach and education by Our Alaska.

"If you share our vision for a more stable economy, and you want to do something about it, come join our group. Or just give us your money," Laing tells viewers, just before he begins gyrating next to the unicorn and other Our Alaska members wearing costumes that range from a head-to-toe zebra suit to a fur hat to a pirate-style eye patch.

They're hoping the Kickstarter campaign will raise at least $10,000, which could help make more videos, and to make another version of a budget-balancing game designed by Laing that uses a giant scale and wooden blocks. They're also eyeing a fly-in to Juneau during the session for conversations with lawmakers.

In interviews, several members said one key factor motivating them is an underlying belief that Alaska's politicians are more concerned with their short-term job security than with creating a sustainable financial structure for state government that can preserve a robust economy and education system for Our Alaska's participants, and their children.

"We're going to be here in 50 years," said Penny Gage, 29, another co-founder of the group. "A lot of the decision makers in the Legislature and otherwise are not."

Our Alaska emerged from an Anchorage nonprofit leadership summit attended last year by Gage and Harrington, who were asked during one presentation to pick a problem to solve and a group of people with which to solve it. Both are former legislative staffers concerned about the state's fiscal crisis, and both wanted Katherine Jernstrom, 31, the owner of the Boardroom, as one of their collaborators.

Our Alaska grew from there. The first in-person meeting was in June, when a group gathered at the Boardroom to watch a video stream of a Fairbanks forum on the fiscal crisis convened by the governor.

"We had mimosas and we, like, tweeted," said Gage.

Occasional meetings are supplemented by small clusters of Our Alaska members who break off and work on individual initiatives, like the video; the group is designed to be nonbureaucratic.

"We did not want to be involved with another board or another group that just had conversations," said Jernstrom. "We wanted people that had a proclivity to taking ideas, running with them, and having some action come out of it."

Members contribute their talents and assets -- Jernstrom, with her Boardroom, lends space. Josh Corbett, a photographer and videographer, shot the fundraising video.

The group isn't exclusively focused on the state budget -- it's also endorsed an initiative to link voter registration with applications for the Permanent Fund dividend. At its meeting Tuesday at the Boardroom, members got an update on Anchorage's efforts to switch to a vote-by-mail system for city elections and heard about a young professionals summit convened by the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce.

There have also been preliminary conversations about fielding a group of candidates to run for office in 2016 and beyond, Jernstrom said.

While members of the group seem suspicious of incumbent elected officials, Kreiss-Tomkins has been engaged with Our Alaska, as has Walker's office. Pat Pitney, Walker's budget director, gave members a walk-through of the governor's fiscal plan after its release last month.

Pitney and other administration officials have delivered dozens of budget speeches to business groups and chambers of commerce across the state, but she said in a phone interview that Our Alaska responded with more enthusiasm.

"There was a lot of energy and a lot of thought of about 10 to 20 years down the road, versus immediate circumstance," she said. That's a view that squares with the Walker administration, she added, which is trying to set up a sustainable system of budgeting where "you don't have to revisit this problem four years from now, eight years from now, 10 years ago."

One question, though, is how -- and if -- the group will be able to affect the political process. Our Alaska will be just one of several groups pledged to try to influence the outcome of this year's legislative session, from trade and labor organizations to businesses to public policy nonprofits. And Our Alaska doesn't have the traditional tools of influence, like money for campaign contributions or lobbyists. Nonetheless, Kreiss-Tomkins, who describes himself as an Our Alaska "admirer," said he was optimistic about its chances.

"I would sure as heck like to think it were possible that you don't need lobbyists on six-figure retainers to make a difference in a Legislature that represents the people -- including the younger generation of Alaska," he said. "If any group can do it, it would be this boot-strapping group of young people."

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