As the 2020 Legislature kicks into gear, lawmakers have other priorities than just passing a state budget. Bethel Democrat Tiffany Zulkosky, who is also the only Alaska Native woman in the House, is focusing both on the state establishing stronger relationships with Alaska Native tribes, and on drafting a sustainable state budget.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy has proposed a state budget that would keep a $3,000 Permanent Fund Dividend and avoid the large cuts he proposed last year. Instead, it would use money from the Constitutional Budget Reserve to cover the $1.5 billion deficit to pay for state services.
Zulkosky doesn’t think that the proposed budget is realistic in its current form. She says that her job is to make sure the budget and PFD amounts are sustainable for years to come.
"Our savings accounts that the state has really enjoyed spending from the last several years to fund our budget are really depleted. You know, I think what we’re going to have to do again with the House and the Legislature is find a sustainability funded dividend, and find a sustainable budget overall," Zulkosky said.
But while she tackles the state budget, Zulkosky is also looking at legislation in other areas. She is now the chair of the Health and Social Services Committee, while maintaining her leadership for the Special Committee on Tribal Affairs. Last year, the committee held hearings to explain the intricacies of treaties, public safety, and government-to-government relationships with Alaska Native tribes. Zulkosky plans to keep focusing on public safety and the missing and murdered Indigenous people crisis.
"We have some ideas that we will potentially be bringing into light sometime this session," Zulkosky said.
Another priority is tribal compacting, which is a formal agreement between governments that defines what role each plays to provide services. Gov. Dunleavy said last year that he plans to pursue an education agreement with the state’s tribes. Sen. Gary Stevens, a Republican from Kodiak, has introduced a bill, S.B. 136, that would do just that. It’s scheduled for a hearing on Jan. 30.
Zulkosky urged the Dunleavy administration to make sure that tribes have the resources from the state to provide these services.
"We want to make sure that tribes feel empowered and comfortable with any sort of policy language that’s introduced, because they are ultimately the ones entering into negotiations with the state," Zulkosky said.
Dunleavy spokesperson Jeff Turner emailed a statement saying, “The administration is in active discussions with the Department of Education and Early Development, legislators, tribes, education groups, and stakeholders regarding legislation to create tribal compacting [for education]. It is our hope to have legislation that has wide bipartisan support ready for introduction in the near future.”
Zulkosky’s other priorities include public health and protecting the Power Cost Equalization Endowment Fund. Meanwhile, Zulkosky is planning to run for reelection later this year. She has already filed the paperwork.