Two Republican state Senate candidates vying to represent a geographically diverse district squared off Tuesday during a debate sponsored by the Kenai and Soldotna Chambers of Commerce.
Incumbent Senator Cathy Giessel, of Anchorage, and Joe Arness, of Nikiski, are vying for a two-year seat in the newly formed Senate District N in the Aug. 28 primary.
Giessel and Arness answered 16 questions on issues ranging from fishing in Cook Inlet, state spending issues, the Alaska’s Clear and Equitable Share act (ACES), natural gas and the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.
Giessel has served in the State senate since 2010 and is an advanced nurse practitioner who consults and practices in several clinics in Anchorage. Arness is the current president of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education, owns Kenai Real Property Services and a commercial setnet operation.
District N House Districts 27 and 28 and includes the northern and eastern Kenai Peninsula outside of Kenai and Soldotna, as well as the area along Turnagain Arm and South Anchorage.
The candidate who wins the primary will face Ron Devon, an independent candidate from Anchorage, in the general election.
Giessel told audiences she was committed to addressing concerns about the economy, jobs and the price of energy. She served on the Labor and Commerce Committee during her first two years as a state senator because it was why she felt her constituents had elected her to office.
Arness said he wanted to give voters a Peninsula representative on the ballot for the newly formed district and emphasized his family’s longtime connection to the area.
Both candidates addressed Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell’s request for a federal disaster declaration in the Cook Inlet to provide relief for fishermen affected by closures or whether the state should be liable for the economic fallout due to its management practices.
Arness said he thought the term liability implied courtrooms and long term issues and said he would support state or federal aid for fishermen.
“My understanding is that what the governor applied for there was dramatically less than what the catch would have been but anything is going to be better than nothing at all,” he said.
Giessel said she understood the governor’s intentions but didn’t agree with the idea of the state supporting people who were capable of working and said federal aid would take at least a year to reach fishermen.
“He’s telling folks that have rolled up their sleeves, had made an investment in their infrastructure and were ready to go to work to support themselves and support their families and because of what I believe are some missteps by our regulatory board the governor is now saying ‘don’t worry the government will take care of you,’” she said.
Discussion of the fisheries continued with a question about long term solutions in the inlet.
Giessel, who was endorsed by the Kenai Peninsula Fisherman’s Association, said she had talked to all the user groups and thought the fishery could be managed differently.
“I’d like to see a more scientific basis to the fishery management,” she said. “It feels very political to me and I think we can do a better job at that.”
Arness said he thought the core of the problem revolved around a lack of coherent information in the fishery and that people had been blindsided by the fishery closures.
“That is an issue that the state can shore up. They can work to make sure that the information that people receive is accurate information and that they know going in what the expectations are, what’s going to happen if those expectations are not met.”
Arness said he would support “shoring up” Fish and Game in its efforts to track king salmon.
Both candidates said the state was spending too much money.
Arness focused on state spending per-person and a capital budget he said was too big.
“I think its unsustainable, I would like to see the state put in some sort of a box so that it can only increase its spending based on some index that’s tied to the economy of the state as opposed to, ‘Well, how many dollars do we have this year to spend, how can we figure out how to spend it and gain political advantage as a result of that,’” he said.
Giessel said the state’s operating budget contained funding for the Department of Health and Human Services and education that automatically increased each year and didn’t leave a lot of money for things like transportation and public safety. She said the state’s “extravagant spending” coincided with increased oil taxes and the state should figure out how to budget itself.
On oil and gas topics, both Giessel and Arness said the state took too much of a profit from each barrel of oil.
Giessel said ACES wasn’t an effective way to encourage private industry and didn’t allow the state to be competitive globally.
“We have the highest federal corporate income tax in the world,” she said. “So our tax structure needs adjusting ... we found that out through numerous consultants who spoke to the Legislature last year.”
Arness said the state’s tax structure was stifling business.
“As I understand it, when oil is $120 a barrel the State of Alaska taxes 80 percent of the net profit of each barrel of oil,” he said. “That’s just immoral. ... We tax at 80 percent, we’re nuts folks and to think that any company is going to come along and play in the game at those kind of rates — we’re strangling the golden goose and somewhere down the road after this all collapses we’re going to look back and say ‘Gee, this was a lot of money that we took in, but where did they go?’”
Arness said he didn’t support “social engineering through taxation,” which is what he considered laws which would reduce the tax rate if companies spent the money in state.
“I’m a ‘if you build it, they will come’ guy. I believe if we establish a tax structure and a business climate in this state that makes sense, there’s still enough oil on the North Slope that the producers will take care of that,” he said.
Giessel said tax credits that incentivized exploration and development in the state may “break our bank” and didn’t focus on exploration where oil has already been found.
“One of the laws of petroleum is, you drill for oil where you know it is, where you’ve found it before and that’s in our legacy fields,” she said. “Those legacy fields do not have the same abundant tax credits and that was one of the adjustments that the governor wanted to make on our tax structure was to incentivize production where there is oil already known and simply needs some additional development.”
Both candidates said Nikiski was the best choice for a proposed natural gas pipeline and they would support it despite the politics involved.
Giessel said it was common sense to use a facility that was already in place and said the state had formed two entities which determined that the most economic route would be one that came to Nikiski.
“Valdez is fighting for it, but there are issues with the Valdez location one of which is a very high taxation in Valdez itself,” she said. “The City of Valdez taxes are rather high and so that doesn’t exactly welcome a new industry.”
Arness said he would have “no trouble” representing Nikiski as the logical place for a pipeline to go, then he revisited the topic of the state’s taxation structure.
“You know its an interesting situation that the State of Alaska is in, in that we encouraged oil companies to come into the state, go onto the Slope, expend huge amounts of money ... drill for oil, put in a pipeline and do all these things and then they start making money and the state came back and said ‘Woah you’re making money? We’re going to take a whole bunch of that,’” he said. “Then in the next breath, turned around and said ‘You know what, why don’t you spend $30 billion and make a natural gas pipeline.’ Would you?”
Rashah McChesney can be reached at email@example.com.