Election Candidate Forum: Alaska House of Representatives Incumbent and Candidate Neal Foster
Nome Nugget: What do you identify as the most pressing issues the State of Alaska faces and how do you propose to address these issues?
Neal Foster: The most pressing issue the state faces is finding a long-term solution to our fiscal instability. Alaska is an oil rich state, but our treasury is subject to the ups and downs of world price markets.
The solution cannot be to balance the budget on the backs of rural Alaskans where in most communities we still lack basic sanitation, transportation and housing. I have already taken steps to get us 80 percent of the way to a long-term solution. I carried the POMV (percent of market value) bill in the House, and this disciplined approach to managing our finances has resulted in billions going to state operations without breaking the bank.
How do we get to 100 percent? We need to eliminate the per barrel oil tax credit that is benefiting the oil industry to the tune of $1.2 billion per year at the expense of everyday Alaskans. I voted against the legislation that created these tax credits, and I voted for legislation that passed in the House to repeal these tax credits. However, the tax credits were later removed from the bill. We must continue to educate voters throughout the state so that legislators are elected who understand the need to put money back into our communities and Alaskan households.
NN: What are your priorities in the state’s budgeting process? Do you support forward-funding Education?
NF: Yes, 100 percent. As the chairman of the House Finance Committee’s operating budget, I included the forward funding provisions in this year’s budget. This fall the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that budgeting funds for a future fiscal year was unconstitutional unless the cash was there to back it up. I included the extra funds in this year’s budget because I believe schools need budgeting stability so that they know how many teachers they can count on having for the school year. I also support and have consistently voted for increases to school funding.
2b) How can the Dept. of Public Safety be supported to improve proper law enforcement and safety for rural Alaskans?
NF: This is both a function of adequate funding and improving systems. On many occasions I’ve had to fight back against urban legislators who sought to make cuts to our VPSO (village public safety officer) programs. I’ve argued that it’s shameful they would seek increases to public safety in their areas while treating rural Alaska like we are not worthy of the same protections. As the chair of the House Finance committee’s operating budget, I’ve been able to keep the funding in our budgets. And this year we were able to add more state troopers and VPSO’s in rural Alaska.
In terms of systems, a VPSO task force put forth recommendations to support the program. I co-sponsored legislation to adopt those recommendations and put them into law. This includes defining what VPSO’s can do and expanding their powers. We included language to allow them to travel between villages. And we allowed non-profits (such as Kawerak) who are administering the program to recoup more of their true costs.
We also need to ensure we have proper detention facilities and housing for public safety officers in each community. I have in the past and will continue to allocate funds to the “teacher, health aide, and public safety housing” program. And this year I secured $12 million for Kawerak to use for a variety of things including construction of new public safety buildings.
NN: Infrastructure in rural Alaska is in dire need of maintenance and repair. What is your plan to address rural transportation needs?
NF: Going back to question #1, if we can repeal the per barrel oil tax credits then that puts $1.2 billion into the state coffers to improve our transportation infrastructure. This year we were fortunate to see more oil revenue go to the state, and we were able to put more money toward DOT personnel in our region. We need to continue in that direction by offering better pay (we’ve been losing good workers to private industry). And we need to go back to a solid pension retirement system (which we used to have and which I’ve consistently voted for).
NN: How would you propose to balance the state budget without dipping into the Permanent Fund earnings?
NF: We need to eliminate the “per barrel oil tax credit” that pays upwards of $1.2 billion to the oil industry. I voted against the creation of these credits, and I voted to eliminate them. I also voted to eliminate “cashable credits” for the Cook Inlet, and the passage of this bill has meant millions in savings for the state. I’m not against the oil industry and actually want them to succeed. When they do well then so does the State of Alaska. While I think the tax system needs to be more balanced, I also think there are things we can do to support the industry. Production has been declining for years, which means less revenue to the state. There are new oil fields that have the potential to boost the number of barrels going down the pipeline and thus provide additional income to the state. We can help to streamline the permitting processes and also be a partner when voicing concerns in Washington DC.
While we have already cut the budget by 40 percent there is still a need to continue looking for more cuts. For example, I’ve seen requests for tennis courts in some of our urban areas. I think such spending should be denied or else put toward other more important needs such as roads and sanitation. Finally, we need to continue working toward a natural gas pipeline. The war in Ukraine has created energy gaps in Europe that could increase global demand. Developing our natural gas would provide additional income to the state. It is more environmentally friendly than oil. It could be shipped down the Yukon and into western Alaska communities to heat homes. And it would create a lot of new jobs for Alaskans.
NN: How can the state address the increasingly devastating effects of the climate crisis as seen in fishery disasters, ecosystem changes and severe weather events?
NF: Alaska is the “canary in the coal mine”, and we are already sending warning signals to the rest of the world of what they can expect. Rising sea levels are eroding our coastlines at an unprecedented rate. Golovin, Shishmaref, Shaktoolik and other communities have seen with devastating effect the impacts of climate change. It’s not that we haven’t seen storms before, but they seem to be more frequent and intense. Warming waters are also negatively affecting fisheries.
We need to support the systems that have been working for us. The National Guard and Homeland Security did a great job of responding to the recent storm. They were quick to respond, and disaster relief funds were made available to help folks recover. We need to make sure that these programs are always fully funded and ready to be disbursed quickly to Alaskans. We also need to make sure that we have the resources to help communities build seawalls or relocate should they chose to do so. This will require the support of both the state and federal government, and I have already educated many of my colleagues on the inevitable need for funding. I have been an advocate for continued investments in renewable energy. We have seen wind turbine, geothermal, hydroelectric and biomass all work with success here in Alaska. Renewable energy is not only good for the environment, but it’s good for people’s pocketbooks.
NN: With the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the issue of abortion is delegated back to states. What is your stance on abortion rights and what legislative action – if any - would you support regarding abortion and/or contraception in Alaska?
NF: I support a women’s right to choose. I would oppose legislation that interferes with that right and all Alaskan’s right to privacy.
NN: What is your opinion on the ballot question whether the state should convene a constitutional convention?
NF: Personally, I will vote “No” on a constitutional convention. However, this is a question that will go before voters. I will respect the will of the public if they elect to convene such a convention by ensuring that it is a smooth and inclusive process.
The question of whether to hold a constitutional convention comes up every 10 years. This question has come up five times, and each time Alaskans have said “no”. I align myself with those who believe our state constitution is not broken. We already have a mechanism to amend our constitution. Convening a convention would be costly and could create all kinds of unforeseen consequences. You never know what direction things will go regarding hunting and fishing rights, resource development, access to lands and waters, and a myriad of other things. Special interest groups and dark money coming from outside Alaska could have an undue influence on how Alaskans go about their everyday lives.