State Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins this week said his first session in the Alaska Legislature was a “sobering” and “depressing” experience.
While the job is stimulating and enjoyable, the session itself – and particularly some of the legislation that came out of it – was discouraging, he said. Passage of the massive oil tax cut, which supporters say will spur lagging oil production and detractors claim will deprive the state of critical revenue, was “the crown jewel of depression,” Kreiss-Tomkins said.
“The glory days of multi-billion dollar surpluses are gone, and with the oil tax cut coming into effect this coming year, it’s just going to get worse a whole lot faster,” he said.
Former Rep. Bill Thomas said in an interview this week he “probably” would have voted for the oil tax cut.
Kreiss-Tomkins, a 24-year-old Democrat from Sitka, is in Haines this week from Wednesday to Friday to field questions from constituents. He will be in the back conference room at the library from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday and in the Chilkat Bakery dining room from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. Friday. No appointments are necessary and walk-ins are welcome, Kreiss-Tomkins said.
The House’s passage of the Knik Arm bridge bill was also a defeating moment for Kreiss-Tomkins, who spoke fervently against the bill. Kreiss-Tomkins said the bill, if signed into law, would put the state on the hook for an unknown amount of money to go toward financing the project.
“At least let me know how much it’s going to be. Literally, the state just signed on the dotted line for a moral obligation for an undetermined amount of money... To me it’s a very irresponsible way of financing because you’re just passing it off to my generation,” Kreiss-Tomkins said.
The capital budget process, which Kreiss-Tomkins referred to as a “dark art,” also frustrated the freshman legislator. “The capital budget process comes in very fast spurts that don’t allow legislators to do due diligence as far as what projects should be put forward and what projects should not,” he said.
Though money was tight this year, Kreiss-Tomkins said House District 34 did well, all things considered. Kreiss-Tomkins cited the Alaska Budget Report, which shows House District 34 received $67.8 million this year, the third-highest total of capital money received of the 40 districts in the state.
About $39 million of that $68 million is for Haines projects, including Haines Highway improvements, airport improvements, and other state transportation projects.
“This isn’t ‘my’ money that I’m personally socking away back to ‘my’ district. These are projects that have merit, and because they have merit they were funded through the budget process,” Kreiss-Tomkins said.
Haines didn’t receive any money for the 14-item “wish list” of local capital projects sought by the borough – which included Lutak Dock upgrades, slump mitigation and drainage improvements, sewer system upgrades, and renovation/replacement of the public safety building. Kreiss-Tomkins said times are lean for every municipality.
The capital budget for the state shrank by one-third between this year and last, from $3.3 billion to $2.2 billion. Though Governor Sean Parnell submitted a $1.8 billion draft budget both this year and last, the legislature added $1.5 billion of its own projects last year. This year it added $400 million.
“My concern is if we thought this year was bad – and it was bad – just imagine what next year will be like when this oil tax hits home... There’s going to be decades of no capital projects for Haines,” Kreiss-Tomkins said.
While Kreiss-Tomkins did not accomplish his goal of getting the base student allocation for schools increased, the legislature did add at the last minute an extra $21 million to the budget for school security and other costs. Kreiss-Tomkins called it a “small victory for education” because the $21 million is a one-time expenditure and doesn’t address long-term education funding issues.
Kreiss-Tomkins also said he was pleased a piece of legislation intended to give public money to private and/or religious schools was “pretty effectively squelched.”
Though constituents in Kreiss-Tomkins’ district continue to compare his clout to that of former Rep. Thomas, who co-chaired the Senate Finance Committee, Kreiss-Tomkins said trying to measure the two against one another at this point is “absurd.”
“(Thomas) has spent eight years in the Legislature; I’m in my first year. I think it’s absurd to compare a freshman legislator with a four-term veteran,” Kreiss-Tomkins said.
Kreiss-Tomkins wrote three pieces of legislation this session. Among them was a bill that closed a loophole that allowed police officers hired part-time to not be held to the same background checks as full-time officers. It passed.
Kreiss-Tomkins said he will be working in the nine-month off-season to collaborate with other legislators, research issues and prepare legislation.
“My goal the first year was to build really positive working relationships, and that’s really important to me, because that’s how you get things done in life. You earn the respect of people,” Kreiss-Tomkins said.
Next week: Reviewing the legislative session with state Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka.