The primary election races for House seats on the Kenai Peninsula are pitting Republicans against one another. District 29, currently represented by Kurt Olson, is no exception.
Olson, who has served the district for eight years, is facing Gary Knopp, small business owner and Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly president. Knopp’s term expires this year.
During interviews with the Peninsula Clarion, the two Republicans shared similar values and discussed familiar issues: maintaining strong work ethics, the need to adjust Alaska’s oil tax and the Little Davis Bacon Act. Although their political priorities fall along almost identical paths, their strategies for achieving those goals differ.
Olson moved to the Peninsula to start a family. He came to Alaska from Sacramento, Calif. upon graduating college. Moving here seemed like a good idea, and it was a good idea, he said.
After 25 years as a commercial insurance broker specializing in oil and gas, he began working as a Senate aide to Sen. John Torgerson, a former KPB Assembly member who was elected to the Senate in 1994. Olson also worked as a committee aide to the state’s Joint Committee on Natural Gas Pipelines in the early 2000s.
The committee gave him tools he still uses today, he said.
“At that point in time we were more interested in getting the gas to the market than anything else, but (working as an aide) gave me knowledge, direction … and how we were going to do it.”
The plan set forth by the committee did not pencil out, he said, because it was not economically feasible.
Olson spoke at length about oil taxation. He has worked on the issue since his start in Juneau, he said. Olson and Speaker of the House Mike Chenault voted against the Alaska Clear and Equitable Share (ACES) and the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act (AGIA) for similar economic reasons.
Changing the state’s oil tax is a top priority for the incumbent, however. He said oil taxes in Alaska are among the highest in the world, and the state is losing business to the Lower 48.
“We’re losing business to North Dakota, and I haven’t driven through that state yet, but I’ve heard you spot Alaska license plates all over the place,” he said. “We’re reaching a point where our residents go to work there like others go to the (North) Slope, and, eventually, they may just move there.”
Other issues important to Olson include how to best monetize natural gas and keep a significant portion for state use and weaning smaller communities off diesel.
Olson’s priorities extend beyond oil taxation. During the last legislative session, a total of 370 bills were introduced in the House, and 75 bills went on to pass both the House and Senate. The incumbent said he had a major hand in eight of those bills.
He said he is particularly proud of House Bill 155, addressing the Little Davis Bacon Act. The bill increased the dollar threshold that public works contracts must meet before they qualify for prevailing wages. The act applied to public construction contracts over $2,000. This legislation raised the threshold to $25,000.
“It was a joint effort of two unions and the Alaska Municipal League,” he said. “They all came together, and they never sit at the same table.
“Nobody loved it, everyone could live with it. Overall, (the legislation) was reasonable.”
His opponent, Knopp, said credit for passing that legislation should be directed toward other parties.
Committee bills take the personality out of legislation, but, sometimes, it is the best route for accomplishing goals, Olson said. He has served as the chair of the House Labor & Commerce Committee for six years.
“If I have a good bill, I just want to get it done,” he said. “It doesn’t matter to me if my name’s on it.”
He also credits the passage of bills to a reliable staff. A credible staff with people skills, he said, is imperative to success.
Olson plans to work in the capital as long as he remains effective and valuable, he said. He believes he is extremely effective, he added, and his long-standing relationship with Chenault works in constituents’ favor.
The current makeup of the House allows for future success, but before real change can occur, a Republican majority is needed in the Senate, he said.
Gary Knopp moved to the Peninsula in the fall of 1979. He is pushing 33 years as a local resident, he said.
At 18, he traveled the unfinished Alaska Highway; he hoped to drive the unpaved “Alcan” before its completion, he said.
Originally from Montana, he spent his formative years in labor and automotive work. This continued until he began working for Arco on the North Slope — a weeklong job opportunity that turned into a career. But when BP bought Arco, he took the chance to retire. He currently is the owner of G & H Construction, an excavating contractor, which employs a staff of three to four people.
Knopp never envisioned working in public office. His foray into politics began when past assembly members asked him to run for an open seat. He tries to emulate past borough assembly president Ron Long, who conducted professional and proficient meetings, he said.
The job comes with its fair share of rewards and frustrations, he said, but is overall enjoyable. Working on the borough’s issues has granted Knopp familiarity with local and statewide dilemmas. He has slowly connected the dots and prepared himself for a larger stage — Juneau.
“I’ve been pretty much unscathed in my political career with the assembly,” he said. “I feel like I’ve got a few good years left in me, and if I’m going to stay in public service this is a good, natural transition for me to make.”
His borough assembly term ends this year. He does not plan to return to politics if his bid for District 29 is unsuccessful.
One of the hardest decisions made during Knopp’s tenore was to maintain ownership of Central Peninsula Hospital, a process that took about a year and involved forming a task force. Also, the assembly’s position on the new radiation oncology center was difficult, but it allowed negotiations to continue between CPH and a private firm, he said.
“The decision initially worked against private practice, but we had an obligation to support our hospital,” he said. “In hindsight, I think those were the right decisions, and I’m happy with the assembly’s efforts.”
He also said he is proud of local efforts on HB155, the Little Davis Bacon Act. The credit goes to Assitant Borough Attorney Scott Bloom, as well as many others involved with researching the legislation, he said.
The current makeup of the House allows for future successes, he said. The House and Senate will work together, because the stalemate needs to end. Knopp likened the relationship to a marriage; nobody is going to get everything.
Gov. Sean Parnell is vocal about what he calls the heavy-handedness of the federal government. Knopp agrees its actions are detrimental to resolving the state’s issues, but he believes bloated state agencies and regulations require curtailing, too.
Knopp points to the Alaska’s operating budget to argue his case. Ten years ago, the state budget was about $3 billion; this year’s budget is $12 billion. The operating budget accounts for $9 billion of that total.
“We start reducing some of the expenses in the departments, we start fixing some of the regulations that aren’t needed, and it would make life a lot easier for a lot of people,” Knopp said.
The state should use some of the dollars in the operating budget to build infrastructure, not bureaucracies, he added.
He said he is looking forward to having those discussions in the capitol and believes sincere and researched arguments can end political paralysis.
“No one on either side of the fence is unreasonable,” he said.
Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at email@example.com.
Editor’s note: An error in Knopp’s section of the article was corrected. The assembly president said Assistant Borough Attorney Scott Bloom deserved credit for his work on the Little Davis Bacon Act, not Deputy District Attorney Benjamin Bloom.