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Ruffridge reflects on one month in Juneau

Ruffridge is one month into his first session in Juneau.
Sabine Poux
Ruffridge was elected to represent District 7 last November.

It has been exactly one month since the legislative session started in Juneau.

This weekend, freshman Soldotna Republican Rep. Justin Ruffridge is back in District 7 for the first time since moving his family to the capital and starting work there. He spent Friday morning speaking with constituents over coffee in Soldotna.

KDLL’s Sabine Poux met with Ruffridge today at the Legislative Information Office in Kenai to talk about how things are going so far and what it has been like to make the move to Juneau.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Justin Ruffridge: It's been a transition, but it's been fun. It's certainly a very unique Alaskan town, and a lot of very unique characteristics there.

KDLL: And you’ve sort of organized around other lawmakers who are going through a similar transition, with this “Freshman Caucus.” Tell me a little bit about that and how that came to be.

JR: Well, that was born out of a training that you go through as a new legislator. That was in December, in person, up in Anchorage.

And you're getting to meet a lot of these people for the first time and have discussions about what's important to them, about who they are as individuals, who their families are.

We all found out that we shared a lot of commonalities, a lot of very unique Alaskan traditions that really make us a lot alike, even though we might disagree on policy decisions or things like that.

I mean, you already sort of touched on it — we're all going through something that not everybody gets to live through, which is uprooting your life to go legislate for four months out of the year. A lot of people are having to make decisions about what their family does and different things like that.

So we built some pretty strong relationships in that process. We were there for three days. And once we got down to Juneau, we realized that we didn't want that to get lost in the day-to-day craziness that is legislation and legislative work. And so we wanted to make it a priority to keep those relationships and those working relationships going, so everybody made a commitment to want to do that.

KDLL: It sounds like you were kind of surprised that you had as much in common with other lawmakers as you did.

JR: Yeah, I think there's always this assumption that the people who aren't from your area — or who might not have the same letter after their name — are in some way, shape or form either your enemy or wouldn't have the same goals as you do. And that just isn't the case.

The title of the program was “From Campaigning to Governing,” and how that's different. And he said one of the things that's unique in that transition is so many people are used to hearing the phrase, “No, because.” And he said, “I'm here to try to challenge you to say ‘Yes, and.’”

So that really helps you to see someone who is different than you, and say, “Yes, I hear where you're coming from — and here’s something else that you might not have thought of from my perspective.” And that really hit home for a lot of us.

KDLL: Is that something you've been able to use so far, in Juneau?

JR: Yes, I think so. Obviously there's a lot of just very basic getting-started parts that are in the first couple of weeks of getting to Juneau. You’ve got to get into an office, you have to form a majority. You have to find out what committees you're on. And then you can start that process of really trying to get into the nuts and bolts of legislation.

So I think there will be time for that a little later, of the “Yes, and.” Right now, we're still just kind of feeling out where we want to go with a budget and who's going to do what.

KDLL: You are in the House majority. What has been like so far?

JR: Well, I'm really happy that we were able to get organized soon. That was one of my goals, was to not wait until 30 days into the session to be organized. So I’m really happy without how that turned out.

I think actually the House majority is very similar to how any large group of people functions, where there's a sense of trying to feel out what priorities are important to other people, what you want your group priorities to be, what are the big barriers to accomplishing those things.

So, honestly, it looks like a lot of really long meetings, would be it in a nutshell.

KDLL: You're on the House Education Committee. And education is a big talking point here at home and in Juneau, as well. I know there's a lot of conversation right now about the base student allocation, for example.

What of the conversations have been like for you on this committee, and what are you hoping to see prioritized in education going forward? 

JR: One of the things that came out of the last legislative session was the [Alaska] Reads Act. We're just looking at the regulations that have come out of that statute change. They’re out for public comment right now, so everyone should be reading those and providing their comments.

But it's gonna require some additional funding to ensure that the Reads Act is going to be successful. We have a big uphill battle to get kids to be able to read by third grade.

Some of it is actually making sure our teachers have the appropriate certifications and curriculums that are necessary to truly teach the science of reading, which actually is a lot like what I guess old school teachers would tell you is just straight-up phonics. We kind of got away from that for a little while. And I think some of our students have not not done as well without having that as a big component of the reading curriculum.

So there's going to need to be a bigger conversation, in my opinion, around the Reads Act and how that's funded and how we really implement that in the next year. So that's gonna be a big focus for me.

KDLL: You filed a bill, House Bill 56

What was that process like, and why did you file the bill?

JR: That was a bill that I saw last year as the chairman of the Board of Pharmacy. The Board of Pharmacy was asked to weigh in on whether or not veterinarians should be exempted from the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program here in the state.

As the chairman of the board, it was my opinion that there were a lot of fixes needed in the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program. I plan on working on a bill for some more of those fixes.

But one of the early things — and the vets have been asking this for a while — was we think that they need to be exempted because they have to access human data, which they're not really keen on doing, and really probably shouldn't do, as well as the fact that they really don't to spend a lot of opiate products. And if they use opiates, it's usually as a subset of surgery. It's not products that are leaving their clinic.

And so as far as them being a component of causing addiction in persons, they’re really not a large component. And the burdensome amount of work that's required for a vet to do this PDMP work is a lot.

So I got involved with it last year trying to help them through it, and it didn't end up passing in the end. And so it's sort of just picking up where we left off.

KDLL: That kind of brings up an interesting point — that you have these unique experiences as a pharmacist, and as someone who lives in this area.

What other perspective do you think you're bringing to the legislature that maybe others don't have?

JR: One of my perspectives that I think is really helpful — and one that I've really been surprised by being a larger topic of discussion in the legislature — is foster care and adoption in the state of Alaska. That's an area that I've been passionate about, personally involved in in my life, my wife and I. And actually, we've already started conversations around those topics in the [House] Health and Social Services Committee.

And I think that there is a very vested interest in helping keep kids safe in the state of Alaska. We are still a state where kids unfortunately experience a lot of trauma, and I have some work being done on that, currently, and a number of people in the House majority have already expressed interest and wanting to help with some of that work.

So I think stay tuned — there will be some legislation coming out of those efforts .

KDLL: What other issues are you attuned to, or do you find particularly interesting this session?

JR: Well, our budget. I mean, I ran on fiscal responsibility. And I hate to break it to anybody that's going to listen to this, but the state still has a structural deficit. We spend more money than we bring in, and that is going to be a huge barrier to anything that we want to do. Because it sounds good to fund the Reads Act or increase the base student allocation. But right now we're sitting at close to a $500 million dollar deficit in the budget.

Some of the governor's budget was balanced out using his legislation for carbon sequestration, but we're not really going to be able to see any revenue from that for at least a couple of years.

So we have a really difficult math problem ahead of us: How do we fund a budget? How do we really make the state work without having some of these tools? We have new oil revenue that has a potential of coming on board with the Willow and Pikka projects, but we're not going to see that for at least at a minimum of six years. So, that's the elephant in the room, and we got hard work to do to try to solve that.

KDLL: Is there anything else that's surprised you so far since getting to Juneau?

JR: I'm surprised by how much it rains in Juneau, even though I've been there a lot in the past. It rains a lot. And certainly that takes a little bit of getting used to.

But as far as surprised with in the House and legislative-wise, I've been surprised at how many vacancies there are in state government. And I think you heard that from the governor this week when he removed the college graduation requirements from many of the state employment offerings. There's a lot of vacancies within state government, and it's really adding to some of the burdens that are becoming very public, like lack of SNAP benefit enrollment and things of that nature. The state is in a position to really need to recruit some workers.

Sabine Poux is a producer and reporter for the Brave Little State podcast of Vermont Public. She was formerly news director and evening news host at KDLL in Kenai.

Originally from New York, Sabine has lived and reported in Argentina and Vermont and Kenai.
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