Q&A: Rep. Geran Tarr on 2022 priorities

Rep. Geran Tarr is a member of the Alaska House Poverty and Opportunity Task Force. In this Q&A, we spoke with her about her policy priorities in 2022, and discussed the proposed splitting of the Department of Health and Social Services. 

Aaron Kunkler: What are your health care priorities in 2022?

Rep. Geran Tarr: I focus a lot on social determinants of health, and I’m going to continue trying to prioritize social determinants of health and prevention. I think it’s critical that we have these conversations in the context of our budget and our longtime financial obligations. Right now, we are spending tremendous amounts of money on crisis intervention, and the most costly part of some of our negative health and public safety outcomes. 

We know through research and other efforts that prevention, early intervention, and education would all save state dollars, and the motivation is to have healthier Alaskans, healthier children, healthier families, healthier communities. The bonus is that you can also save a lot of state dollars…

One area is child abuse prevention. We unfortunately have some of the highest rates of child abuse in the country, particularly child sexual abuse. We’ve been working on policy alternatives for that for a number of years, and have successfully passed legislation to do education and prevention. I’m going to continue working on that, looking for opportunities in the budget to support families… In some places, it’s not about spending more money, it’s about spending it in a different way. So looking for those opportunities in our child abuse prevention, in our substance misuse prevention, in our mental health system, and then in our interpersonal violence…

On the legislative side of things I have worked to update the definition of consent. It’s more than 40 years old, and it’s so broken that it routinely denies justice to Alaskans who’ve been sexually assaulted. This consent legislation is so important because it’s got two potential outcomes. One is for those individuals who haven’t successfully been prosecuted, following sexually assaulting someone. It gives you the opportunity to prosecute that crime and remove someone who’s dangerous from your community, because that’s what we do with our criminal justice system right now. And that’s how we protect other Alaskans. 

It also gives the amazing opportunity to educate Alaskans around consent and what that means and try to prevent the sexual assault from happening. That’s so important because on the law enforcement piece of it, harm has already occurred. 

AK: What are your thoughts on the proposal from Gov. Mike Dunleavy to split the Department of Health and Social Services into two departments? 

GT: I need to spend more time reviewing the current proposal. I know that it has some similarities to what was presented last year, but I know in the intervening time they’ve been able to meet with stakeholders and get a lot more input. I need to understand that a little bit better. I think innovation and new ideas can be a good thing. 

I understand what’s being suggested here is that this split will allow more focus on some of these family issues, just as the name suggests. As I understand it, it’s not gonna save significant dollars at this time, and we’re under a lot of pressure to resolve our fiscal situation. So without knowing more details, my concern right now remains is this the right time to be trying to do this while we’re still in a pandemic? While the department had an online attack that took down the department website and really impacted services and has taken a number of months to become functional?