The legislative session is almost halfway over, and House District 38 Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky is just getting started with her committee work. Along with her committee memberships, she is also overseeing a special committee devoted to tribal affairs that formed for the first time this year.
It took almost five weeks into the current legislative session for the House to sort itself into committees and elect a House Speaker: Bryce Edgmon from Dillingham. He switched from Democrat to undeclared. Now that Zulkosky has her committee assignments, she’s preparing to dig into Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposed budget. Dunleavy wants to cut huge chunks of funding from several services that the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta depends on, services that Zulkosky vowed to protect throughout her campaign last year.
"I think that what I've seen in the days since we’ve organized is that there is a lot of shared concern about the unprecedented level of budget cuts that have been proposed by the administration," Zulkosky said.
Zulkosky co-chairs the Health and Social Services Committee and sits on the Education and Energy Committees, but she just received another assignment that came as a surprise resolution earlier this week: Zulkosky will lead a special committee on tribal affairs. This is a first for both Zulkosky and for the Alaska Legislature, the first time such a committee ever existed in the House. Zulkosky is the only Alaska Native women in the House, and she prioritized strengthening tribal relations with the state throughout her campaign. This is a first step, she says.
"My role as chair is really providing information to the legislators on the committee about what are tribes, what are the roles they play in their communities and what are the responsibilities that tribes have to their citizens, what are the legal structures in place in terms of the relationships that tribes have with the federal government, and how do these resources come into these communities," Zulkosky said.
The Y-K Delta is home to more recognized tribes than any other region in Alaska and the biggest priority right now will continue to be dealing with Dunleavy’s proposed budget. One of the biggest cuts he proposed was to state funding for Medicaid expansion. Zulkosky noted that Medicaid expansion helped Alaska’s economy, especially within the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, the poorest region in the state.
"Alaska’s been trying to pull itself from a recession over the last few years. And in areas where the economy has been lagging, one area that has been a bright spot is the health care industry," Zulkosky said.
Zulkosky also works as the Vice President of Communications for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation, the largest health care provider in the Delta.
Another of Zulkosky's pledges was to protect state education funding. Y-K Delta school districts called Dunleavy’s proposed cuts in that area “devastating.” Meanwhile, she’s still working toward another huge priority: improving data collecting on missing and murdered Alaska Native women. That includes improving how the state handles cold cases, like the recently solved one concerning Sophie Sergie from Pitkas Point.
"We’ve been trying to do a lot of research to make sure that we understand as fully as we can where those statutory fixes would need to be to solve those issues," Zulkosky said.
It remains to be seen if Zulkosky manages to accomplish all of her goals, especially as the legislature is nearly halfway through this year's session and is only in the beginning of negotiating Dunleavy’s budget.