March 15, 2012 | Vol. 42, No. 11

Thomas says he wants to be Speaker of House

Vet home, harbor top capital priorities

State Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Haines, told the Haines Chamber of Commerce last week he wanted to serve six more years in the Alaska Legislature and would like to be the first Alaska Native named Speaker of the House.

Thomas is seeking re-election this fall. He’s vying for a seat that represents rural communities that was recently re-shaped to include Sitka.

“I want to serve six more years and then I can afford to retire,” said Thomas, a commercial fisherman who, before he was elected in 2004, worked as a lobbyist in Juneau.

In a talk billed as a mid-session update, Thomas said he didn’t expect a proposal by Republican Gov. Sean Parnell to reduce taxes on the oil industry would pass and said that funding for capital projects would hold steady.

“We’ll have plenty of money for capital, the same as last year, probably about $800 million for the state,” Thomas said.

Asked in an interview about his priorities for local capital spending, Thomas said, “If I went first, it would be for the veterans’ home, but we have to take care of the borough and see what they want.” He mentioned a $4 million request for harbor improvements and need for repairing the water treatment plant. He said he would be meeting with borough officials later in the day.

Haines Assisted Living is seeking $6.1 million in capital funds for an assisted living home for veterans, including ones from recent wars. “It’s mainly for soldiers with brain injuries to have a safe place to retire,” Thomas told the Chamber crowd.

A Vietnam veteran, Thomas said the House recently passed a measure to recognize April 30 as Vietnam Veterans’ Day.

The body also passed a bill limiting protests at funerals. The bill brings Alaska in line with 46 other states that regulate where and when protests may occur at funerals. “People should be able to bury their family members with honor and pride,” Thomas said.

He said the legislature would renew a law funding renewable energy projects that he said has retired 10 million gallons of diesel fuel per year.

Thomas described his presentation as “bad news,” returning to a theme of limiting spending in the face of an annual 6 percent decline in oil production he said could leave the state with a deficit by 2014. The state’s $9.6 billion operating budget is equal to $34,000 per resident, he said.

“I’m not a tea partier, but I’m for showing, ‘Do we have the money to do it?’ It’s a challenge,” he said.

The state has a $13 billion surplus but as much as $12 billion is wrapped up in payments for retired state employees, he said. Without tapping the $40 million permanent fund or instituting an income tax, the state could face reductions to capital projects, revenue sharing and major maintenance, he said.

He compared tax reductions for the oil industry to money invested in seafood marketing that he said has raised the value of a pink salmon from a nickel a pound to 47 cents.

“It made sense to me to try to get production back up. I’m sympathetic to the people (here) in 10 years. If we don’t do something, sometime or another, something’s going to have to happen,” Thomas said.