WASILLA — Hundreds of people packed the hall at Wasilla Area Seniors Inc. to voice their opinions to sitting legislators during a town hall on Saturday. While many topics, old and new were discussed by members of the public given a microphone to communicate with their legislators, many familiar topics arose that were featured at the town hall held before the first half of the 31st legislature last session.
“I’ve got a certificate for each one of you and we know we want to say when we started the 31st legislature, we elected a republican governor, we elected a very conservative republican delegation from the Valley, you went to Juneau and you did exactly you did exactly what we asked you to do,” said Ron Johnson.
Johnson issued a certificate to each legislator seated before the crowd. All of the Valley delegation attended on Saturday. Representatives Mark Neuman, DeLena Johnson, Cathy Tilton, George Rauscher and Colleen-Sullivan Leonard were in attendance as well as Senators Mike Shower, David Wilson and Shelley Hughes. Commissioner of Public Safety Amanda Price and Deputy Commissioner of Education Niki Tshibaka were both in attendance as well.
“We were thrown to the wolves in the house by some wayward republicans but I am here to say that you stood firm and we’re here to say thank you. We know that 2019 was a very very rough year for you,” said Johnson.
Johnson’s certificate was signed by chairs of republican district groups and the Valley Republican Women and thanked the legislators for working with Gov. Mike Dunleavy “to reduce crime, curb spending and right size our state government, protect our PFD and the Permanent Fund.”
Many members of the public thanked legislators before the legislators took their turn thanking the public for braving cold winter temperatures to attend the town hall. One of the members of the public was Mat-Su School Board Member Jeff Taylor, who asked the legislators to get the full PFD back.
“We are struggling with teachers in the Mat-Su Valley and several things have been taken away from them over the years which are costing us,” said Taylor. “Please don’t do that. To lose that bond reimbursement would be very detrimental to the school district.”
Taylor jokingly asked the legislators if they could poke FEMA to get a movement on the dormant Houston Middle School. One of the most talked about topics of the town hall that Shower referred to as “the thing I’m not supposed to talk about,” are the binding caucus rules that dictate that members of the caucus must vote with the caucus on the budget.
“It’s about freedom. I fought for that freedom. Our founding fathers fought for that freedom. We have a God given free will. Taking away the free will of a legislator to do what they think is right is not the way this needs to be taking place and currently it is,” said Shower.
One man in the crowd shouted “We’ve got your back Mike.”
Another often used charge for the crowd was to expand out into other non conservative districts.
“Go walk those neighborhoods. You don’t need to walk these, we need you in Anchorage we need you in Juneau, in Fairbanks, in Kenai, in places where people are not doing what they say they’re going to do,” said Shower.
Many members of the public were concerned about the Office of Child Services and prison corruption. Other speakers were in favor of a defined benefit retirement for teachers, and one member of the public noted Dunleavy’s tweet to Tesla owner Elon Musk asking for Tesla cars to be manufactured in Alaska.
“We heard from many of you. We heard from neighbors and others who said we want a repeal of Senate Bill 91, we accomplished that We want a reduction in the budget, we accomplished that to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. Public safety was one of the highest priorities we continue to work on that. Presence in the Valley will increase,” said Sullivan-Leonard. “I’m going to dig deep. I’m going to look into every corner that I can because i know there’s areas to reduce the budget. People say we’ve cut it to the bone. I guarantee you we haven’t. We still have a huge deficit, I think it’s $1.6 billion.”
Several members of the audience said they would be in favor of a government shutdown if the upcoming session does not go the way they want it to. Hughes detailed some of the bills she will be introducing when the legislature gavels in later this month.
“A lot of people know we are the bottom of the barrel in our country and I’ve got an education bill that’s been folded into a senate education committee bill which gives me hope,” said Hughes.
Hughes also told the crowd that she plans on introducing a bill regarding a state audit and a bill to address recidivism. Many of the massive crowd offered praise to their legislators for their work during the last session.
“We do have an outstanding delegation. You’re all republicans, you follow the platform and you work together. I mean that makes you stronger as a group of republicans,” said Pete Probasco. “It takes more than an ‘R’ after your name to make you a good republican.”
While legislators and the hundreds who gathered to hear thoughts from other residents during the town hall were in high spirits, the looming House Bipartisan Coalition in Juneau left some with a bleaker outlook for the second half of the 31st legislature.
“A lot of the voices that we’re hearing from are not working or they have government jobs or they have a lot of time on their hands and that voice is even louder than yours,” said Rauscher. “We’re going to have it a lot harder this year. I don’t think it’s going to be any more fun. The lines are drawn in the sand already.”