Taking a break from demanding legislative schedules, Sen. John Torgerson, R-Kasilof, and Rep. Ken Lancaster, R-Soldotna, spent time Saturday morning with the home folks. A standing-room-only crowd filled Soldotna's city council chambers to ask questions and request support on a variety of issues.
Representatives from senior centers in Soldotna, Sterling and Ninilchik expressed alarm with federal funding cuts that mean reduced wages for some employees.
If affected employees find unsubsidized work, the centers will lose the subsidized potions permanently, according to Jan Fena, spokesperson for the Soldotna Senior Center.
"Most senior centers are self supporting and can't afford to staff," Fena said. "Therefore, it will diminish services and/or alleviate them. We would appreciate your intervention to help us through the regulations."
Lancaster said he was aware of the situation and attempting to replace dwindling federal dollars with state support.
"We're fully there to bat for you," he told Fena.
John McCombs, of Ninilchik, sought Torgerson and Lancaster's support for legislation currently being drafted by Sen. Jerry Ward, R-Anchorage, and Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, that addresses commercial fishing issues. McCombs said the legislation aims at "separating biology from the regulatory side of management."
He spoke in favor of emergency openings, which McCombs described as the "number one enumerator for finding out the strength of runs."
When asked about progress on creating a long-range fiscal plan, Lancaster said a group in the House of Representatives was addressing the issue.
"It's a lot easier said than done," said the Soldotna legislator who campaigned heavily on the need for such a plan. "But I envision coming out of this session with something to look at."
Thanks to oil prices, the state has some financial breathing room, according to Torgerson.
"We have enough money until 2005," he reported.
Transportation was the subject of a number of questions. Torgerson said he has introduced legislation that would turn federal transportation dollars over to local governments.
"Every state does this, but we never have," he said. "Last year the commissioner (of the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities) opposed doing this. This year (the administration) is OK with it. I really look for it to pass."
Soldotna City Manager Tom Boedeker joined the legislators in answering questions about interrupted access to local businesses during upcoming road work in the Soldotna area.
"A lot of that is up to the contractor," Boedeker said of the work scheduled for July. "There are provisions that the road must remain open, but it's a little unclear how that will be done. "
With regard to the possibility of a natural gas line spur to Cook Inlet, Torgerson reminded the Saturday audience that Alaska is "competing with the rest of the world."
"We have four main competitors," Torgerson said, "the Gulf of Mexico, Nova Scotia, Alberta and methane gas in the Wyoming Rocky Mountain area. We're dealing with world markets, not just United States markets."
"With all the wells being drilled around the world, it shoves (Alaska) further out," he said.
Questioned whether subsistence would find its way to the table this year, Torgerson predicted it would not.
Representing the Caribou Hills Cabin Hoppers snowmachine club, Doug Blossom asked the legislators for some help.
"We're having a hard time getting permits, mainly from (the Department of Natural Resources," Blossom said. "Just a little over a year ago, we asked for a bridge across Crooked Creek. Sen. Torgerson, you got us the bridge. It's sitting in my yard. But we still don't have the permits."
Blossom's request brought up the use of bike trails for winter recreationists and conflicts among user groups.
"The solution is to force all the users to use the same trails," Blossom said. "Don't prioritize one user over another."
Efforts by the Alaska Travel Industries Association received sharp criticism from Lancaster, who described the group's presentation to the House Finance Committee as "lousy."
"They'll have to do a better job," Lancaster said. "They need to devote a little more time to it to hustle the Legislature if they want funding."
Justine Polzin, of the Soldotna Visitor Center, said the newly formed ATIA is still developing its marketing plan. She said 3 percent of individual peninsula community tourism budgets placed under the umbrella of the Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council help match state funds.
"That's $2,000 out of our little budget," Polzin said of Soldotna's share. "We can do a lot of marketing for $2,000. You can take out a pretty good sized ad somewhere for that amount."
Torgerson drew laughter from the crowd in response to a question about the possibility of obtaining tourism funds through a state-collected tax.
"I wouldn't trust a hungry state to collect money and then not keep it," he said.
Lancaster and Torgerson drew another round of laughter after Kenai Peninsula Borough roads director and former legislator Gary Davis encouraged them to ensure public testimony during committee hearings, rather than permitting legislators to spend the time arguing among themselves.
"Some like to just hear themselves talk instead of listening to people testify," Davis said.
Looking at Torgerson, Lancaster asked, "That's the minority, isn't it?"
"It's the other buggers down there," he said.
For more information concerning upcoming committee meetings and opportunities for local participation, call Legislative Information Offices in:
n Kenai - 283-2030
n Homer - 235-7878
n Seward - 224-5066
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