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By Dan Rudy 

Outgoing representative thankful to voters, colleagues

 

Submitted Photo

Rep. Peggy Wilson (R-Wrangell) debates her bill to reinstate the Alaska Transportation Infrastructure Fund, which would set aside funds for future transportation improvements. Five years in the making, the bill passed the House several times during her 14-year tenure but never made it past the Senate. "We're the only state that doesn't have a pot of money for that," Wilson said. "We really do need it."

After spending seven terms in the Alaska State House, Wrangell's long-serving Rep. Peggy Wilson announced her intention to retire last April, declining to run for reelection in November's general election.

"It's really family more than anything else," she explained. One concern is the health of her mother, who lives in Iowa. "I was only getting to see my mom twice a year. That really got me thinking."

Wilson described politics as very time-consuming, limiting the time she had to spend with her eight grandchildren as they grew up. Now with two great-grandchildren, she would also like to take this opportunity to spend more time with them.

While busy, her time in Juneau was a distinguished one. Wilson was a leader within her party, serving as the Majority Whip since 2011. She also chaired the Transportation Committee, and served on the House Resources, Education, and Joint Legislative committees, and several finance subcommittees.

She also represented the interests of her district, last session helping to reallocate funds for $2.75 million left over in the purchase of Wrangell's new boat lift, allowing some flexibility of their use to continue paving work at the Marine Service Center.

Wilson hadn't originally planned on becoming an Alaskan politician. In 1993 she was on her third term in the North Carolina House.

She was staying at a hotel in Raleigh when her husband, Woody, called with a job opportunity and asked if she would be willing to move to Alaska.

"All at once I knew something big was going to happen," she recalled. To the surprise of them both, she said yes, resigning that year from the legislature and relocating to Tok to work as a registered nurse.

"And I said I would never get into politics again," she said. By then living in Wrangell, seven years later she would drawn back into politics.

"I was very frustrated with what was happening with education," she explained. "There's a list of maintenance and projects in the schools across the state that need to be taken care of," with schools prioritized on a first-serve basis. Wilson said she noticed a tendency to skip over smaller schools with more time on the list.

She decided to run for public office, winning at the general elections in 2000. Afterward, she found being a representative in Alaska was a different kind of job than in North Carolina.

While previously she had served 140,000 constituents, her new district of Wrangell, Petersburg and Sitka had only a fraction of that population.

"It's a huge shock," she said. "In a big, populated area it's hard to get to know your legislator." In no time at all she found herself familiarizing herself with her district.

"It makes a huge difference. You can get a better flavor of where they're coming from if you talk to them in person."

Her previous job experience proved of help in the Legislature. Wilson helped draft and sponsor a bipartisan Nursing Bill, HB 50, in 2010. The bill sought to prohibit mandatory overtime and other strenuous scheduling practices for nurses in the state, citing both staff and patient safety concerns.

"It took six years of working on that," Wilson recalled. The bill generated some controversy, as the practice was used by medical centers to manage scheduling.

"The hospitals all came out against it," she said. "In order to pass the bill, we had to compromise." In the end, the bill allowed for some exemptions for emergency services but restricted shifts to 14 hours and mandated rest periods in between shifts.

She feels her RN experience also made her a more effective lawmaker. "You learn to ask questions and search for things that aren't obvious," she said. "I found that very, very helpful when I was on a committee."

While taking on a variety of issues, Wilson had made the establishment of Alaska Transportation Infrastructure Fund a signature issue. It would provide for transportation projects and bring Alaska's transportation funding scheme into alignment with those of other states, which collect a principal amount in the form of tolls and fees. The interest from the principal is then used to pay for transportation projects each year.

Last year the bill passed the House with 34 votes, and had it passed the Senate would have gone on the ballot as a potential constitutional amendment.

"We really do need it," she said. "We're the only state that doesn't have a pot of money for that."

Looking back, Wilson expressed her appreciation for the support she received over the years.

"I really would like to thank all of the people who have helped me while I was in the Legislature," she said. "Especially all my staff, but also other legislators and their staffs, department personnel, and of course my constituents. They all helped me do the many different activities that my job entailed, and even gave me ideas for bills, some of which became law. I have made lots of wonderful friends and I will be eternally grateful for the opportunity to have served the people of Southeast Alaska."

Looking forward, though she has bowed out from legislating Wilson said she will remain involved in politics. As the state begins to confront extensive deficits this session due to declining oil revenues, Wilson warns tough times will be on the way.

"It doesn't look good for a good five years," she said. But drawing from past experience, her advice to voters is to keep engaged. "The tighter money gets, the more important it's going to be for people to let their legislator know where they stand. They can't help you if they don't know what your problem is."

 

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