Senator Donny Olson says shake-ups in the Senate Finance committee have put rural legislators at a greater advantage in 2020. This legislative session, Olson marks education funding, the Village Public Safety Officer (VPSO) program, and pushing for a full PFD, among his top priorities.
KNOM’s Emily Hofstaedter recently spoke to Senator Olson about these topics and more:
In rural Alaska where residents have little disposable cash, communities are especially dependent on permanent fund dividends (PFDs). Senator Olson recognizes this, which is why he says he has always supported a full PFD. Olson even went so far as to say that depriving Alaskans of the full PFD is akin to, “breaking the law.”
But the state has to support certain programs, he says, and can’t just drastically make cuts in order to balance the budget and increase PFD payments.
While he acknowledges the state’s $1.4 billion deficit, Olson thinks the answer to a balanced budget is raising revenue rather than cuts. In particular, he thinks the state could adjust oil tax credits.
“And we’re not taxing them more, we’re just trying to get the oil tax credits adjusted so they’re not as much in their favor.”
Olson believes that could shrink the gap from the deficit by more than a billion dollars. And he’s not opposed to considering an income tax either, which could exempt lower earners.
Senator Olson is also concerned about education funding and the potential for Rural Alaska to fall further behind if programs like Head Start and vocational technical skills aren’t adequately funded.
“It’s in the constitution that the state is responsible for providing education to all students across the state of Alaska. And the students in Nome and in the Bering Strait region are also affected by that and they need to be adequately funded in order to not have to go through remediation once they go to schools of higher learning.”
As a member of the Senate Finance Committee, Olson says he’s trying to put programs like the school debt bond reimbursement back into the supplemental budget.
And that isn’t the only program Olson is fighting for; he’s part of the VPSO working group. Senator Olson stands firmly behind the group’s nine recent recommendations for the VPSO program—especially moving the grant management to the Department of Commerce and increasing initial salaries for VPSOs.
“Another one is statutory changes that would give VPSO’s more authority to go ahead and act as assisting the law enforcement aspect of public safety- mainly the troopers that are there.”
The City of Nome has requests they would like to see Olson focus on this session too: including support for a deep-draft port in Nome. That is a project Olson says he sees great opportunity in and says he would support any legislation in favor of that project: one that he sees benefitting the whole region.
“I think that the people that I’ve spoken to in Golovin or White Mountain and those people up and down the coast realize that once you get a larger barge up there that’s handling some of the heavier equipment, heavier buildings that are coming out that they see this as a positive thing. It would decrease the cost of goods and services being brought to the area.”
But there’s one service Senator Olson doesn’t feel is adequately being provided for Western Alaska and that’s the REAL I.D. When the Alaska Department of Motor Vehicles presented to the Senate Finance Committee earlier this month, they claimed that most Alaskans already have ID that will comply with the REAL ID mandate.
They say technical difficulties with properly calibrating the mobile REAL ID equipment made their travel on the road more difficult than expected. Through his role with the Senate Finance Committee, Olson wants to support state efforts to reach rural residents.
“If you have equipment failures out there, come to us! We can dole out some more money to try to make it so that you can purchase a more reliable piece of equipment.”
But he says the state hasn’t asked the Legislature for funding yet and that he is unimpressed with the continued lack of effort to reach rural communities.
Image at top: Senator Donny Olson with Matilda Hardy and Representative Neal Foster. Photo from Olson’s Ulu Newsletter, 2020 (http://aksenatedems.com/senator/olson/021220_ulu_news.htm)