House District 2 Representative Rebecca Himschoot during session, May 3, 2023. (Photo/Gavel Alaska)

The Alaska Legislature is finishing its final few weeks of the regular session. Lawmakers are deciding how much money the state of Alaska will give to school districts and how much of the Alaska Permanent Fund should go to individuals and the State for its operations.

House District 2 Rep. Rebecca Himschoot advocates for 22 communities in Southeast, including Sitka, Petersburg, and smaller communities from Yakutat down to Prince of Wales Island.

She recently spoke with CoastAlaska’s Angela Denning about the session.

Denning: How is your first legislative session going?

Himschoot: Wow, it’s going really well. I guess the quick answer to that is it is super challenging. And I love it.

Denning: Is it what you expected — is being a lawmaker what you expected?

Himschoot: Yeah, I think it is pretty much in line with what I expected. I just didn’t know how hard it would be. And when I say it’s hard, it’s the challenge of it is just the pace, there’s so much to know. I can imagine a day where the learning curve flattens out just a little bit. And then I think the effort to reward ratio will be a little more in my favor. But you know, I’m an educator and a lifelong learner. So in that way, I really, really love everything that I’m getting to do. But I do think that I’ll be more effective with more time. Like, once I know all the moving parts a little bit better and have more experience, I think it’s going to feel even more rewarding than it already does.

Denning: I definitely want to ask you about education and what’s happening with funding. But first, I want to ask you about recent news about the Southeast king salmon troll fishery closing down this summer. A Washington judge issued an order that could close the king troll season this summer in Southeast in order to protect orcas in Puget Sound. And I know this is something that you’ve actually been fighting in the Legislature.

Himschoot: Yeah. I gave a special order on it today on the floor, because it’s just so incredibly disappointing. You know, the trollers that I’m in touch with regularly, they’re incredibly resilient people. And I have felt really crushed by the decision yesterday. And I’ve been impressed with the willingness, with the fight that these trollers have, you know, to say, hey, this isn’t over yet. Yeah, this is a setback, but it’s not over yet. And I know, they’d been bracing themselves. But I like to, you know, on the floor, I needed to frame it again today for the other legislators that we’re talking about 1500 people across Southeast Alaska. That’s a huge part of our population. I can’t think of a community in Southeast that doesn’t have at least one troller. And so the magnitude of this decision, or obviously, the people involved directly in the industry, but the trickle down of that we know, you know, it’s like I think at $35 million fishery to the people actively fishing. But the benefit to the community spans out to $85 million. And to have that just, just summarily shut down, is absolutely devastating. And, and in in the special order on the floor today, I basically invited the Governor to make good on the promise of supporting the trollers. And we’re waiting to see what happens next. But I think it’s important to know that there are a number of us here, watching very closely to make sure that there’s some support from the state for the next steps.

Denning: Now on education, you’re on the Education Committee, and education is funding that’s hotly debated every year. School districts across the state create budgets in the springtime, without knowing exactly how much money they’re going to be getting from the state. Recently, lawmakers have been backing an increase in per student funding. Can you talk to me about where school funding is at now and what you support?

Himschoot: Sure, yeah. But I want to go back to that fundamental problem that you just pointed out. And that’s that district budgets have to be obviously, they have to be balanced, but they also have to be produced before they know what our commitment to them is. And it is just it is such a flawed system. And the stability that we could bring to the system, by funding early would, would be immense. And so where we stand now is neither of the bills for a BSA [Base Student Allocation] increase, have passed the floor and either body. So what that means is there are increases to education on the table. But those increases right now are one time funding and a lot of people think, well, it’s money, who cares if it’s BSA or if it’s one time. The difference is if it’s in the BSA, then it’s a commitment from the state that we will continue to fund at this level going forward. We can increase it in the future but if it’s in the BSA districts can count on it and build their budget next year knowing that they have that money going forward, and possibly an increase and maybe not. But when we fund outside the BSA, it’s a lot harder for districts to make commitments on funding that may or may not materialize in future years. So as an example, you might replace a phone system or buy new curriculum, these are needs that districts have, but as far as committing to your educators that they have a job going forward. That’s much more tenuous without the commitment of the funding that is there being within the BSA, meaning it will be there this year, and next year, and in years after that.

Denning: Sometimes you hear people argue that funding should be tied to results. So what’s your response to the argument that comes up sometimes that schools shouldn’t get more funding until they improve their test scores?

Himschoot: Yeah, there’s that T shirt I see all over Southeast Alaska, “the beatings will continue until morale improves”. And that’s what that feels like to me. But I think Alaskans can expect more from their schools, none of us is happy with the scores that we’re showing. But my, my challenge to people, we had a recent committee meeting on an increase in funding for correspondence schools. And that’s it’s just another way of saying homeschools. And I’m not necessarily opposed to that. But when we ask homeschools correspondence programs, to give us evidence that that investment is producing results, they tend to test students at a much lower rate than the brick and mortar schools do. And so with a 15% participation rate in testing, we don’t really know how home schools are doing. And so when we asked, what is your evidence that your schools are doing great, they named off a whole list of things, including students’ participation in extracurriculars, students’ graduation rate students going on to a post-secondary certificate. If we use those measures for schools in Alaska, for all of our schools, the building based and the correspondence schools, I think you’ll find a really high level of success. And it’s a longer, deeper conversation to go into why that single measure of a test score is not showing success in Alaska schools. So I’m not saying that our schools should be getting higher test scores and there’s something wrong with the test. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying those test scores need to move up. But I’m also saying there are many, many ways of measuring the success of a school.

Denning: Another topic that’s debated year after year is the amount of the permanent fund dividend, figuring out how much individual PFDs should be, and how much of the permanent fund should help pay for the running of the state. How is that looking right now in Juneau?

Himschoot: (laughs) That is a hard question and a hard conversation. But the Senate has passed — I can’t remember the bill number — but it’s a 75-25 split. And so we finally would have a statute that matches the practice. And then we can make ourselves match our practice to the statute. So that feels like a step forward. That said, I would like us to find ways to have the biggest Permanent Fund Dividend that we can have. And that requires the legislature to make some hard decisions. And it requires Alaskans to come on kind of a bumpy road along with us.

Denning: So do you support other kinds of income like a, like a sales tax?

Himschoot: Yeah, I had an interesting conversation with a representative recently, where I took the 22 communities of House District 2. And I made a chart of those communities, those the charge sales tax, how much it is and the poverty rate in those communities and then I compared it to some larger communities like Anchorage and Fairbanks and in the home community of this legislator, and that legislator was from a community that has a 15% poverty rate, and no sales tax. And so I pointed out, there’s at least a half dozen communities in House District 2 that have a 15% or higher all the way up to 28% poverty rate and yet tax themselves. And I asked that legislator, how can I go to these communities and say, Now we’re going to tax you more for the good of the State? So I am not a fan of the sales tax. I do feel more comfortable with the, I don’t know the bill number again, but it’s Alyse Galvin’s bill, that is an income tax for high earners. So the threshold I think was 250,000 and up would pay a very modest income tax. And then everybody in Alaska would chip in $20. And that could come straight out of your PFD. And to me, that’s asking everyone to put in something, and some of our most successful to put in a little bit more. So I’m more interested in measures like that. Adding a sales tax feels, feels like the wrong solution at a statewide level, that’s just going to be really, really hard for rural folks.

Denning: Income tax on the rich seems like a newer idea and plus the $20 from everyone. Does that seem to have any momentum for this session?

Himschoot: No, but we’re in the first half, so I think it could get more attention in the second half of the legislature. But the Governor has also talked about a sales tax, but he hasn’t yet produced a bill. And so it feels like there’s a lot of focus on a sales tax versus an income tax. I am willing to look at a sales tax. And for the reasons I’ve already named, I don’t think it’s the right tax. But I willing to look at it, if there are exemptions for food and other essentials would not in my mind, if we could have a sales tax where food and other essentials are not taxed, and heating fuel is not taxed, I could maybe have that conversation, but it’s not the direction I want to go. So I would like to see us be a little bit more creative. And I’ll tell you there’s something like, there’s more than a half dozen different tax measures being bounced around right now.

Denning: Something that’s not in front of the Legislature now, but is being discussed in Alaska, is NOAA Fisheries proposal to list the sunflower sea star as endangered. There are meetings being held in Petersburg in your district as well as in Kodiak. Do you have any thoughts on this?

Himschoot: Yeah, I haven’t followed that. I’m aware that there are some meetings happening. And I hope to get, I guess I hope to get some feedback from folks who are able to go to those meetings on on what that means and what those impacts might be. And so on that specific issue, I need to learn more, but I will say fishing has always been a high-risk environment. There’s, you know, the life safety risk of going to sea. But then there’s the, you know, what’s the price of fish going to be? What are the regulations going to be? What’s the guideline harvest level going to be? There’s a lot of risk in fishing. But we’re starting to see impacts to our fisheries that I’m not sure we imagined were coming. And so I guess I’m saying that I am concerned for one of the mainstays of our economy. But I’m concerned more on a personal level. I know, I’ve taught children from fishing families, since I’ve been here in Southeast Alaska for 30 years. And the threats to that way of life, and to that part of our economy seem to be growing. And I think that’s concerning for everyone. I could have just said, I don’t know anything about sunflower sea stars, that would have been the quick answer. Sorry, about that.

Denning: (laughs) That’s totally okay.

Himschoot: But I think, you know, it’s like, it’s like a harbinger, right. And that’s what makes me so nervous is the, and maybe I haven’t followed fisheries as closely in life, previously. And so maybe it’s always been like this, but it sure feels to me like there are new and different threats to our fisheries than what we’ve had before. Prices go up and down. Harvest levels go up and down. And that’s been difficult to navigate, but doable. Now we’re getting into some territory, that may not even be doable for some folks, especially for young fishermen just entering, right. And so what does that mean to our economy and what does that mean to our way of life? Again, I could have just said, I don’t know.

Denning: I think some fishermen I know would agree with you. There are just so many variables now. Like you said, there’s always been some ups and downs that come with the territory, but it doesn’t seem as stable as it used to be. I don’t know that everybody’s telling their grandkids to become fishermen at this point.

Himschoot; Yeah, exactly. Yep. We’re potentially losing a foundation of who we are culturally and economically. Yeah.

Denning: So last summer, you were all-out campaigning for office. What do you, what do you see your summer looking like this year?

Himschoot: Well, it’s only been in the last couple of days that I’ve even started to look at what summer’s gonna be and I booked at ticket to finally go see my dad. He’s elderly and I haven’t been able to visit him – I made a quick trip during the campaign. So that’s a high priority. But I’m pretty excited because I committed during the campaign to coming to each community once each year. And that’s, you know, this is 22 communities spread across 500 miles that are boat and plane accessible. So it’s not like, it’s not like I can just, you know, drive each weekend to a different place. It takes some effort to get out to the communities. But I’m glad I made that promise. And I intend to make good on that promise because the way I ran the campaign was to get to every community twice and I mostly was able to do that. Petersburg, I think I was three or four times. But just knowing about the communities at the level I do has been really helpful here. And I can’t think of a concrete example, of course, off the top of my head, but things will come across, I’ll be able to say, Well, wait a minute, I don’t think that’s going to work well in this community or that community or in all of my communities collectively because of how rural they are. So knowing the communities well, has made a difference in what I do already. And that means for me for now, that I can’t let up. So my brother retired last year and after torturing the family for months of looking at every possible boat, he finally committed to a vessel and he’s bringing it up from Bellingham at the end of the month. And I am going to put my kayak on his retirement boat and we’re going to head down to Prince of Wales and just work our way around the district and try to, try to get to every community for at least a day or two. And then of course, I can’t miss May Fest, Little Norway in Petersburg, I have plans to come for that. But the session dictates whether that will happen or not. So the summer is going to be a lot of traveling around in the district and I love it. Very excited about it.