House candidates talk politics at Sterling forum

Posted: Monday, July 24, 2000

Soldotna, Sterling, Funny River, Seward, Cooper Landing, Moose Pass and Hope will have a new voice in the Alaska House of Representatives next year.

The six candidates for the House District 8 seat introduced themselves and their ideas at an informal forum Wednesday at the Sterling Senior Center luncheon.

About 50 people, mostly senior citizens, attended. Their questions focused on restricting government spending, seniors' services and the quality of Alaska's education.

The District 8 race will be decided in two phases.

Five contenders are jostling for the Republican slot on the ballot. Voters will decide among Ken Lancaster, Grace Merkes, Charlie Parker, Carolyn Ann Reynolds and Larry Smith in the primary Aug. 22.

The victor will face Pete Sprague, the lone Democrat running, in the general election Nov. 7.

One of them will replace Gary Davis, a Republican from Soldotna, who chose not to run again after serving since 1992.

At Wednesday's luncheon, the candidates spoke about their backgrounds and priorities. People in the audience then asked questions and made comments, and the candidates had the option of responding, although not all candidates spoke to all of the questions raised.

Here is a summary of their remarks in the order spoken.

Pete Sprague: Sprague introduced himself as "Pete the Postman" and cited his experience on the Soldotna City Council and Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly.

"I am doing this because I believe I can make a difference," he said.

"What I am hearing from a lot of people is it is time for a change. It is a new millennium and time for some fresh ideas and fresh energy."

Ken Lancaster: Lancaster spoke of his roots in Alaska and the Kenai Peninsula, noting he grew up in Cooper Landing and has lived in Soldotna since 1962. He reviewed his experience, which includes service on numerous boards and elected bodies, most recently as mayor of Soldotna.

"I know the people in this district," he said. "I want to listen to you folks and make sure your voices are heard in Juneau.

"There will be a lot of new faces in Juneau. It will be a great opportunity to make some real and fundamental changes in the way the government does business, and I would like to be part of it."

One of his priorities, he said, will be to promote accountability in the state budget.

Grace Merkes: Merkes spoke of her nearly 40 years in Sterling and her experience on bodies such as the borough assembly.

"I think that I have a lot of local experience in local government," she said.

She said she had run two years ago against Davis as a Democrat, and explained her switch in party affiliation.

"My philosophy is more geared toward the conservative Repub-lican party platform," she said.

Merkes predicted an interesting year in Juneau.

"There are going to be a lot of changes," she said. "The people are going to have to look at what kinds of services they want and what kinds they don't want."

Carolyn Reynolds: Reynolds said her priorities are money issues.

"I would like the people of Alaska not to have to worry about losing their permanent funds," she said.

She said the state of Alaska has plenty of money but needs to manage it better and deal with what she called "bloat" in government. She also supports moving the state capital.

Reynolds pledged to keep her personal viewpoints secondary to what she called "the will of the people" and to listen to the people.

Charlie Parker: Parker said he has ideas for solving the state's fiscal problems.

Last spring when the Legislature was wrestling with balancing the budget, he sent individual legislators copies of a plan he devised for balancing it. He was disappointed when only three responded, and even those declined to comment on his plan's merits, he said.

Parker would like to see development of the Susitna River Dam and investment of oil money into renewable energy like hydropower.

"We need to convert our oil consumer economy to a more sustainable one," he said.

Parker also said he advocates a 10-percent, across-the-board pay cut for all state workers.

Larry Smith: "There are a number of Larry Smiths out there," began the candidate. He introduced himself as a lifelong peninsula resident who lives in Cooper Landing and runs his own construction business.

"I am not happy with everything that goes on in Juneau," he said.

He wants to improve the way the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities does business. The department needs to cut middle management and revamp the way it prioritizes projects, he said, and he criticized decisions to cut back on road plowing, to build the road to Whittier and to construct a bike path near the Seward Highway's Hope cutoff.

"Those monies, I believe, are better spent down here," he said.

Smith also criticized overall state spending for its high levels and things he called "fluff."

"I think government is kind of getting out of hand to where they think they know what is best for us," he said.

Question: What would you do to get school spending under control?

Pete Sprague: Sprague said he has been involved with the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District through the borough. Many school programs have been cut or jeopardized, and maintaining school resources is important, he said.

"Without a sound education," he said, "(young people) are going to get their education Outside and stay Outside."

He stressed he would like more school funding, not cuts, and more support for children.

"I do not advocate any (school) cuts," he said.

Ken Lancaster: School funding is the major expense of the borough budget, he said, and the school board has the final say of allocation decisions.

He praised Senate Bill 36, a school funding reform bill passed in 1998, calling it "a step in the right direction."

He expressed concern about the financial impacts of the exodus from public to alternative schools and said education issues require more work.

"I don't think we can shortchange our youth," he said.

Grace Merkes: "I, too, support education. There are a lot of things that need to be fixed in the school system," she said.

Merkes said she has been working on getting a Head Start program for Sterling and voiced support for efforts by Sen. John Torgerson, R-Kasilof, to persuade unincorporated areas to help pay for their schools. She also wants incentives for teachers.

"I don't advocate cutting the budget for schools at this time," she said.

Carolyn Reynolds: "I do believe we are paying more for education than most of the states," she said.

Reynolds said school resources should be focused on classrooms. She criticized administrative expenses and low test scores.

"Throwing more money at it is not the answer," she said. "Reducing the money and taking away the administrative waste is the answer."

Charlie Parker: "I am no expert on our education system," he said, "but as a taxpayer, I feel all our government employees are grossly overpaid."

Parker recommended eliminating all assistant principals and requiring school principals to teach a minimum of one class per day.

Larry Smith: "I think that, like any bureaucracy, the school system probably has some fat that could be cut," he said.

He said he has three children in district schools and is pleased with their quality but concerned about the high cost.

"I think we should be proud of the school system we have, ... but at the same time that doesn't mean we're getting the full value."

Smith said he supports vouchers, which he sees as creating healthy competition to improve education.

Others in the audience expressed concerns about rumored school spending and programs that had been cut.

Pete Sprague: Sprague said he did not have enough information to address the specifics of the comments but had been taught when he was a student to look up answers he doesn't know.

Carolyn Reynolds: "I believe that the educational system needs to return to the basics," she said.

Reynolds said subjects like physical education, family development and social skills should be done by families, not public schools.

Larry Smith: "A number of us have concerns, but I am not sure we are expressing them at the right place," he said.

He recommended people with questions and concerns about schools should get involved and attend school board meetings.

Question: How would candidates, if elected, help elders cope with care costs?

Grace Merkes: She said she is concerned about this topic and believes Medicare should pay for prescriptions. In-home health care is another issue needing attention, she said.

"I think seniors need some taking care of," she said.

Most funding for seniors is federal, but the state should subsidize needs such as senior housing and long-term residential care, she said.

Question: Would the candidates work to get the state to classify Alzheimer's as a disease condition?

Grace Merkes: She said she believes it is a disease and should be covered.

Carolyn Reynolds: "There are a lot of funds available for senior citizens that often don't reach the rural areas," she said.

Reynolds said she advocates better policing of how current funding is being allocated and to assure it is being spent properly.

Ken Lancaster: "I think we all intend to work on those issues," he said. "There is no easy solution."

His mother, he said, is in a nursing home and suffers from Alzheimer's disease.

The candidates were given an opportunity to make closing remarks.

Pete Sprague: He characterized the type of discussion at the luncheon as an ideal forum for voters to interact with candidates.

"That is what makes government work," he said.

Carolyn Reynolds: She expressed a willingness to linger after the forum to answer more questions.

Grace Merkes: She thanked the seniors for their time and said she was glad to answer questions.

Ken Lancaster: He thanked the hosts and repeated his theme: "Budget accountability is going to be the answer," he said.

Charlie Parker: Parker declined to comment.

Larry Smith: He said there are many other issues to discuss and urged people to vote.

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