Residents speak; most say no

Posted: Monday, February 23, 2004

The "people's voice" could be heard loud and clear in the foyer of the Peninsula Center Mall in Soldotna on Saturday, as the Alaskans, Just Say No! group held a town meeting to give people in the community a chance to speak.

Citizens were invited to the open microphone to share their thoughts and feelings about the proposed income tax or any effort to use part of the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend to pay for more state government. More than 150 people came and spoke their piece.

"This is about defending the Alaskan people's voice. A voice the current Alaska legislators don't want to hear," said Eddie Burke, state chair for Alaskans, Just Say No!

Soldotna's Mayor Dave Carey opened the meeting with the Pledge of Allegiance, then things quickly got down to business.

Young and old, men and women, Democrats and Republicans each took their turn speaking for more than two hours. Regardless of who was talking though, words and phrases like "entrenched bureaucracy" and "government spending at an unsustainable level" came up again and again.

Mark Neuman of Big Lake one of the 55 delegates who attended the Conference of Alaskans held earlier this month in Fairbanks announced he had joined Alaskans, Just Say No! as an honorary chair.

"I voted for Gov. (Frank) Murkowski because I believed him when he said he would not use the PFD and would protect seniors, and now I think the governor lied," Neuman said in a press release issued earlier in the week.

Neuman gave a pensive speech Saturday afternoon.

"The governor needs to start listening to 'we the people.' We're a lot more educated than he thinks," he said to the cheers and applause of the crowd.

In stark contrast to the soft-spoken Neuman, John Whisamore of Kasilof angrily vented his dissatisfaction with the proposed fiscal options of the current administration.

"They would have you believe an income tax or raiding the permanent fund is the only option. Giving the government more money is no solution. They'll just spend more. We've seen that in California," Whisamore said.

"When I have personal bills to pay, I don't start to conserve by cutting back on the gas in my truck that I use to go to work ... that's what our government does ... they cut the essential services."

Along that same vain, many who stepped up to the microphone spoke about making governmental cuts as a way to overcome the current fiscal impasse.

"They have to cut their expenses, not our permanent fund," said Henry Ayre of Soldotna in regard to the state legislators. "These people don't live in our world."

Rep. Kelly Wolf, R-Kenai, spoke to the group via speaker phone, adamantly opposing the proposed percent of market value plan, or POMV.

''Let them beat me up with a stone and drive a stake through me,'' he said.

More than a few people used the funds spent for the Conference of Alaskans as an example of Murkowski's skewed financial priorities.

"The governor spent $300,000 for that Fairbanks fiasco, and it was nothing more than a conference of the elite," said Jim Crawford, Anchorage chair for Alaskans, Just Say No!

Although the vast majority of people who spoke were opposed to an income tax or the POMV plan, a few people spoke in favor but were greeted with boos and hisses from the crowd.

Former Kenai Peninsula Borough mayor and state legislator Mike Navarre attended the Fairbanks conference, and he seemed flustered by the accusations during Saturday's town meeting.

"Nobody went up there to take away the dividend or be the governor's puppet," Navarre said angrily.

He implored critics of the POMV to take another look at the plan, which he said he believes could be more beneficial for dividends than the current system.

At the conclusion of the town meeting, Burke said he was pleased with the turnout.

"These people weren't asked to come here. They weren't flown here. They just came to be heard, and their resounding statement was to protect the dividend. It's not surprising," he said.

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