Democrat Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins is running for re-election against Republican nominee, Kenny Karl Skaflestad, for House District 35 in the November general election. The district includes Petersburg, Sitka, Kake, Angoon and many small island communities of the central panhandle from Prince of Wales Island up to Elfin Cove. In a two-part series, KFSK looks at the two candidates to find out what their priorities would be in the legislature.
Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins was born and raised in Sitka. The 31-year-old has held the House District 35 seat for the past eight years as a Democrat.
“I’m a pro-math candidate,” he said, laughing.
It may sound like he’s joking but Kreiss-Tomkins is pretty serious about numbers and the budget. It’s the top priority facing lawmakers, he says.
“I will unabashedly defend math,” he said. “And by that I mean that budgets have to balance and magical talking points that have no bearing in budget or mathematical reality are a disservice to Alaskans because it’s disingenuous dialogue about what our options actually are.”
Kreiss-Tomkins says he doesn’t want the legislature to get distracted by debating line items like the ferry service and education. He says while those details of the budget are still incredibly important there is a much bigger, looming problem with the state’s instability that needs to be addressed: oil dependency. The state continues to rely on oil revenue but production has been declining over the last three decades and prices are always up and down. They’re low right now because of COVID.
“So, we have just a huge budget problem,” he said. “Like the magnitude of problems we’re looking at is hundreds of millions of billions of dollars.”
Instead of fixing the problem, Kreiss-Tomkins says, the state has been procrastinating and spending down its savings account to almost nothing. Some lawmakers point to using the Permanent Fund to help the state balance the budget but Kreiss-Tomkins says that won’t even be enough money.
“We definitely don’t have the money to pay for all of our services and the dividend,” he said. “In fact, we have so little revenue that we could have a zero dollar permanent fund dividend and we would still be in a budget deficit. It’s that bad.”
Kreiss-Tomkins says the permanent fund is not a magical, big pot of money to solve the state’s problems. He says the fund should be protected for future generations.
“I could not be more violently opposed to the notion of spending down our children’s and grandchildren’s wealth that should be preserved in the permanent fund to solve our present day budget problems because we don’t have the will to confront it and solve it,” he said.
Kreiss-Tomkins says he has the will. He is an optimist at heart and believes that Governor Bill Walker was on the right path with a mathematical approach to the budget problem. He says it comes down to three things: tightening the belt making cuts to the operating budget, rewriting the PFD formula to be something sustainable, and instituting new revenue sources. He says new revenue could come from an income tax. That’s something that passed in the House a few years ago but failed in the Senate.
“It’s basically inevitable that we will need to pass broad-based revenue,” he said. “It’s just a question of what it is and when. And the longer we procrastinate, the more collateral damage in the short term and the long term there will be.”
Kreiss-Tomkins says some lawmakers want to balance the budget by cutting state government and keeping a large, $3,000 dividend. But he says those numbers don’t add up.
“It’s just such a magical, fantastical talking point,” he said.
He says it won’t work because it would take cutting state government by a third, which is more than Governor Dunleavy’s proposed cuts that led to a recall effort. Kreiss-Tomkins says he is open to new ideas for creating revenue in the state.
As for COVID, state law makers are still meeting. Kreiss-Tomkins says that the pandemic has slowed the process down since the spring but he’s still attending committee meetings regularly online.
This is the first of a two-part series on the House District 35 race. KFSK also reported on the Republican nominee, Kenny Karl Skaflestad. There will also be a public forum on the race, hosted by KFSK in Petersburg and KCAW in Sitka, on October 14.