"This is your town meeting. I want to hear exactly what it is you'd like me to do," Sen. Jerry Ward, R-Nikiski, told a standing-room-only crowd Friday night at the Cook Inlet Aquaculture building. And for the next three hours, Ward got plenty of suggestions.
Nearly all of the public commentary focused on two major issues for Kenai Peninsula residents: fishing and education.
Joe Malatesta Sr., a Soldotna legal assistant who works with commercial fishers, was the first to speak. He told Ward he'd like to see several changes to the way the state does business.
"The politicians are breaking my heart. What happened to the commercial fishing industry in this community is criminal," Malatesta said.
He then made some suggestions on how the government can change.
"We need to take the whole expenditures in Juneau down to rock bottom," he said.
Ward agreed, restating his long-held belief that a constitutional spending limit needs to be enacted.
"We need to cap the government, then prioritize. We need to pay for the services we need, and not the ones we don't. I believe we're kind of in trouble now. Our mining, timber and fishing industries have been destroyed. Most of you have heard me jabber on about a constitutional spending limit. If you're making less money, you have to cut expenditures," Ward told the crowd.
The issue fishers who spoke seemed to have the biggest problem with was the Alaska Board of Fisheries. Several in the crowd loudly voiced their displeasure with recent board decisions and the governor's appointment of a prominent local fishing guide, Brett Huber, to the board.
"We've been fighting the Fish Board for eight years under the Knowles administration and gotten nowhere," Malatesta said.
Roger Smith, an Alaska resident since 1947, told Ward he doesn't understand the board's recent decision to limit commercial pink salmon fishing to drift fishers five miles from shore, since pinks are believed to travel mainly along the beaches. He told a story about how two years ago, when the last large run of pinks hit Cook Inlet, he went down to the Kenai River to see just how many of the "humpies" were clogging the stream.
"It smelled so bad, I thought the Board of Fish was having a meeting there," Smith said, as the crowd erupted in spontaneous laughter and applause.
"If we can't wipe out our Board of Fish, I'd like to see the commercial fishermen get a decent break. I'd like to see (the board) put some rhyme or reason into what they do," Smith said.
Ward told the group he is also upset with the Board of Fisheries, and that he intends to vote against Huber's confirmation.
"It seems they're intentionally trying to do away with commercial fishing. They're putting the wrong people on there. I'm voting no," on Huber's confirmation, he said.
Ward also discussed the governor's call for legislators into a special session on subsistence after the regular legislative session ends in May. (See related story, page A-9.)
"I think it's high time we resolved this issue. I think the vote in Anchorage was a good thing," he said, referring to the advisory vote calling for the subsistence issue to be put on the November ballot, which was approved by 72 percent of Anchorage voters last week. "I believe any Alaskan who wants to put a fish on the table has a right to."
Ward, a staunch opponent of the rural hunting and fishing priority mandated by the federal government, said he has high hopes that the subsistence issue will be resolved during the special session, although he did not indicate that he would change his position as one of eight senators preventing the issue from going before voters.
In addition to listening to the woes of local fishers, Ward heard from many in the education community who are currently embroiled in a bitter contract dispute with the borough.
More than a hundred educators, upset with their stalled contract talks and the level of funding the state gives to education, stood outside the meeting, waving at passing motorists and holding signs, asking for better pay and more respect.
Hans Bilben, Skyview High School teacher and president of the Kenai Peninsula Education Association, the union that represents teachers, said he was disheartened by the recent loss of many older teachers who took the borough's offer of a contract buyout.
"Some of those people we lost were master craftsmen," he said. "We're in crisis."
Kenai teacher Mike Gustkey said he understands that state government is feeling an economic pinch, but he said he doesn't believe the state is doing its best to prioritize its money.
"I keep hearing people say they value educators. I think there is money (for education) and that it needs to be used more wisely," Gustkey said.
Ward agreed and said the state should establish an education fund and a land endowment to help fund public education.
To that effect, he introduced Senate Bill 188 last year. It has languished in the Senate Resources Committee since then.
"Let's make a better alliance between our education and development communities. Why should education have to compete against everything else?" he asked.
"I'm tired of paying for feel-good stuff. We're running out of oil money. This is ridiculous. We're not developing our God-given resources."
He said the answer to the budget gap isn't new taxes, but better control of legislative spending.
"If we took all that money (from new taxes) and dumped it into the general fund, I guarantee the governor and the Legislature would spend every penny of it," he said.
Soldotna Mayor Dave Carey, who teaches at Skyview, agreed that taxes aren't the answer to the budgetary shortfall.
"We need to talk about the problems the Legislature is giving us. Eight hundred employees in this (school) district are in crisis. We need to make decisions to balance the budget long-term and then prioritize. To do it any other way is a-- backwards," Carey said.
Ward said he was pleased with the way the meeting turned out and the discussion that was generated. He said he'd take all of the concerns he heard back to the capitol with him.
"I'm not the sharpest pencil, but I'll remember everything you said," he told the crowd.
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