Several candidates running in the 2018 midterm elections travelled to Dillingham last week. KDLG talked to Senator Lyman Hoffman, Representative Bryce Edgmon, and candidate William Weatherby about their focus as November nears.
The budget stands out as a central topic for state-level candidates heading into the midterms.
“Rural Alaska continues to have a big red bull’s eye on its back," said Democratic Senator Lyman Hoffman of Bethel, who is running uncontested for Senate District S. "Programs like power-cost equalization, state revenue sharing, and other programs are targeted. I think that until we get a balanced budget in rural Alaska, we as rural legislators need to be in a defensive mode.”
In May, the state legislature passed Senate Bill 26 with the goal of balancing the budget. It takes about 5 percent from the Permanent Fund’s earnings reserve account annually and sets it aside to be split between funding state government and funding PFDs. However, the legislature never settled on how much should go to the state and how much should be put toward dividends. According to Hoffman, determining that split will be a central issue in the next legislative session.
Incumbent Democratic Representative Bryce Edgmon is running for re-election in House District 37. He called funding the PFD this year a “balancing act.”
“Rural legislators are very attuned to the fact that the PFD is critical to people, particularly those who live in villages and certainly all small towns across Alaska. And we all support a full dividend. In the House we had that vote, I voted for a full PFD. But in the end, to get a budget across, which contains the PFD, we had to compromise. And we increased it from what it was last year by $500. So that’s, I think, positive news,” he said.
Edgmon also pointed to the legislature’s increase in education funding, which applies to both the current and upcoming fiscal years.
Republican candidate William Weatherby of King Salmon is running against Edgmon. He wants to restore the full PFD and rejects implementing a new calculation to determine the dividend amount, as proposed by gubernatorial candidate Mark Begich.
“So, there is a budget gap and I don’t think the PFD should be on the chopping block," Weatherby said. "I think the classic formula is fine. The Permanent Fund Corporation will pay the state double the amount needed to pay for the Permanent Fund Dividend.”
Weatherby also rejected a new income tax as a means of revenue. He said that to address the budget gap, the legislature should work with individual state departments to cut spending.
“The biggest potential area for cut would be where the largest spending is. If we could save 10 percent, we should do that in a department that spends half of our budget. I think that Education and Early Childhood Development plus Health and Social Services is over 50 percent of the budget,” he said.
Among the candidates, there was one point of consensus: the future of the state budget and many other matters will largely depend on the new layout in the House and Senate – and on the next governor.
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