by Representative Tiffany Zulkosky, House District 38
Normally when I provide an end-of-session update, it is May or June, our fish are running in the Kuskokwim, and I have either returned, or am eagerly looking forward to coming back, to the community and region I love and am proud to call home.
This year is different. I would like to start by acknowledging that, as we work hard to remember better days will return, many are anxious about the global spread of COVID-19 and what it means for our lives and families. I want to take a moment to thank our healthcare professionals and all essential workers – like grocery clerks, first responders, teachers, and so many others – for keeping our society functioning. Many of us are in your debt and we owe it to you to practice social distancing as much as we can.
Every year, one of the most important things the Legislature does is pass a budget and fund essential State programs for the upcoming year. However, this is not a normal year. Given the unprecedented threat the spread of COVID-19 poses to our villages, Alaska, the United States, and the world, I was proud to join my Republican, Independent, and Democrat colleagues to pass a budget in record time that protects the Alaskan way of life and provides relief to those affected by this global pandemic.
This year I fought to ensure we passed a budget that provides for safe rural communities, quality schools, supports local governments, ensures Alaskans have access to quality and affordable health care, and much more.
We protected a number of essential programs for our region, including the VPSO program, Medicaid and Adult Preventative Dental, Power Cost Equalization, community assistance, senior benefits, and funding for Alaska Legal Services Corporation.
I was proud to work with colleagues in both the House and Senate to secure funding to ensure continued operations and maintenance of both the Quinhagak airport and the Kuskokwim Ice Road. Unfortunately, Governor Dunleavy has since vetoed those funds, alongside millions of dollars for public broadcasting, education funding, and Medicaid.
Over the last several weeks, the price of oil has dropped to record lows and the Permanent Fund has lost billions of dollars. Projections for next year’s budget forecast a nearly $500 million deficit after funding basic state services, even before considering what the State can afford to pay to residents as a PFD.
As lawmakers put together budgets and decide how to spend money, there are no easy answers; only very, very difficult choices. Anyone who tells you otherwise, while promising a “full” or “backpay” dividend, is not being honest.
My colleagues and I worked across party lines to pay as large of a PFD as we possibly could, ensuring our ability to pay future dividends is not threatened. As someone who was raised by a single mom in rural Alaska, I know firsthand how important the PFD is for our people, and I know many are nervous about their future and the future their children will inherit. I hope the PFD and the Federal stimulus payment will provide some peace of mind.
If I could get a record-setting PFD payment to everyone in our region, every year, I would. But when legislators cut budgets, rural Alaskans are often the first to lose out. Over the last four years, the Legislature has cut the budget over 40%. I will not sacrifice cutting essential programs – like education, PCE, VPSOs, and Medicaid – even further so we can pay a one-time check to every Alaskan, many of whom live on the road system and enjoy the benefits of well-funded State resources. I have always, and will always, fight for as big of a dividend as I possibly can, while protecting the critical programs that hold our communities together.
In anticipation of the many Alaskans who will be out of work, or working on limited hours, while we try to flatten the curve of coronavirus infections, the Legislature passed HB 308. This bill removes the one-week waiting period to receive unemployment benefits and expands the benefits for people who lost their jobs or are working reduced hours. We are going through difficult times and the government should do what it can to ease the burden for families who have lost income due to this pandemic.
Another piece of key legislation we passed was SB 241, which protects Alaskan consumers and businesses affected by COVID-19, empowering the State with the tools it needs to respond to this unprecedented challenge.
When the COVID-19 crisis became clear, the Legislature had to change its priorities quickly to ensure we completed essential business and we could no longer place as much focus on passing bills. Until then, my office was highly involved in legislation resulting from the bicameral and bipartisan Village Public Safety Officer Working Group, to strengthen and improve the VPSO program.
I also introduced a bill to address the ongoing crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. I hope to continue discussions with tribal partners about the potential of protecting the Alaska Tribal Child Welfare Compact in law.
We are in challenging times. We are facing a public health emergency, along with an economic crisis. The medical community is working overtime to produce the equipment, vaccines, and research to protect all of us from this highly transmissible virus. That is why it is so important to shelter in place and observe proper social distancing practices as much as possible.
We must do everything we can to slow the spread of COVID-19 so we can avoid overwhelming our fragile health systems, save lives, and return to some sort of normalcy as soon as we can. If we look back and say we overreacted, it means the steps we took worked.
As our region continues to go through these unprecedented times, I hope you will reach out to my office if you have questions or need assistance. My team and I stand ready to help. This virus may be keeping us apart, but we are all in this together.
Representative Tiffany Zulkosky serves Alaska House District 38.