Calling for more fiscal responsibility, development of the state's resource wealth and a general change in the direction of government, five candidates vying for the Senate District Q seat spoke before a packed room at the Kenai Chamber of Commerce luncheon Wednesday.
The candidate forum included Republican primary opponents Sen. Jerry Ward of Nikiski, Joe Arness of Kenai, and Raymond VinZant Sr. of Soldotna, as well as Thomas Wagoner of Kenai, a Republican Moderate, and Patrick Hawkins of Soldotna, a Democrat.
Not at the forum were Democrat Kurt Loyal Melvin of Nikiski and Thomas Stroman, a Green Party of Alaska candidate from Kenai.
Marge Hays and Sammy Crawford of the Alaska League of Women Voters acted as moderators.
Hawkins, who said he has lived in Alaska since 1966 and on the Kenai Peninsula since 1987, said the Legislature needed "new, fresh blood." He is the former host of the KSRM AM-920 radio talk show "Sound Off" and works at the Safeway in Soldotna. He said the fact that lawmakers were unable to complete their work in the 120-day regular session and then held a special session that cost in excess of $300,000, shows there is need for a change.
"They (lawmakers) really haven't solved anything," he said, pointing to the closure of the Ninilchik highway maintenance facility and the closure of state parks elsewhere in the state.
"I'm here to offer a change and offer a choice," he said, adding he would be able to work with whoever is elected governor.
Tom Wagoner has lived on the peninsula for 33 years. He is a former Kenai City Council member and mayor of Kenai. He said his priorities include a balanced state budget and providing services the state should be providing -- the most important of which is education.
"Right now, I don't think the proper education dollars are going into the right places," he said.
He said he thinks the state has sufficient funds to cover the budget and provide proper services if government is reorganized.
"But not the way it's been going the last 10 to 15 years," he said.
Arness, who sells real estate, called himself an entrepreneur, "a fancy French word for someone who will do anything not to have a real job." He said he wears that mantle proudly.
Arness has been involved in local politics for 18 years and owns the Merit Inn in Kenai. He noted his familiarity with school funding issues and municipal budgets after spending several years on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Board of Education and on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assem-bly.
VinZant said he decided to run when Sen. John Torgerson opted not to seek re-election. He said he disagreed with Torgerson's view on the Alaska gas line and said the number of returning salmon was not up to par, issues that needed solving.
"We're having 19 new senators this year if you want to elect them. This is a chance to make a real significant change to our way of government," he said.
"The people of Alaska are first, but the people of Kenai, Soldotna, Nikiski, Ninilchik, these are the prime responsibility of the legislators in this area. I will be a full-time senator," VinZant said.
Sen. Ward, who has represented residents of the upper peninsula for the past five years as the senator from District E. Now he is seeking re-election to the Alaska Senate in the newly drawn Senate District Q.
"What are the problems with the state of Alaska?" Ward asked rhetorically before taking a different tack. "I tell you, we have a lot of opportunities. We're going to have a Republican governor, finally have a chance to open up some of our 100 million acres of ground, be able to start developing it and get it into the hands of private individuals so they can be on the tax base."
The next three years will be critical, he said. In his view, Alaska doesn't have an income stream problem.
"We have a spending problem," he said.
Ward said he would cap government and vote to move the Legislature to the Railbelt.
Each candidate was asked to grade the last legislative session and explain that grade.
Hawkins said he'd give lawmakers a "D," for the partisan politics and inadequate funding for education.
VinZant said he'd rate them an "A+" for not voting for taxes and not touching the Alaska Permanent Fund dividends. However, he said that was likely because it is an election year.
Wagoner said he'd give them a "C," saying some members of the Senate did nothing but waste money.
Ward gave the Legislature a "C- for spending too much." He said he tried to hold down spending despite the "tremendous appetite" to spend public dollars exhibited by the special interests and bureaucracy.
Arness said he'd assign "a D, as in disappointed." He said the Legislature has not come to grips with economic realities.
The candidates were asked to list their three top priorities.
VinZant said his were getting the budget passed in less than 120 days, giving enough money for education -- he supports reworking the foundation funding formula by which schools are appropriated state funds -- and supporting the fishing industry.
Wagoner said the budget deficit has to be addressed. The fact lawmakers have had a savings account to tap, the Constitutional Budget Reserve account, has "made it easy to ignore balancing the budget."
He said to expect some hard choices that will impact some Alaskans negatively. Fishing and education were his other two priorities.
Ward said his were education, transportation and public safety -- "in that order."
But he said the budget was part of all of those, and that the state was spending more money than it had coming in.
He said Alaska must do those three things well. Everything else is on the table for discussion "before government comes in and reaches its hands into your pockets or the cruise ships' pockets or the oil industry's pockets to get additional money out of them."
Arness said his first priority would be returning credibility to the activities in Juneau. Second would be "taking some reality to Juneau" so lawmakers would know what the rest of the state is doing. Third would be education, public safety and transportation.
Hawkins said his top priorities would be working on a long-range fiscal plan, addressing school funding and taking a look at transportation.
He added that back in 1980, Alaskans paid an income tax.
"If you put that income tax in now, it would raise $750 million," he said. "Of that $750 million, 23 percent would be paid by people that work up here that live Outside."
Candidates were asked how they would close the fiscal gap.
Wagoner said he couldn't name specific cuts without having a copy of the budget in front of him, but that they should be in nonessential services. He said he would look in the $1.2 billion capital budget, which he said "had a lot of pork in it."
He also said the power cost equalization program should be looked at. He questioned why the rest of the state should subsidize Bush electricity.
He said he would not support a tax increase.
Ward said the longevity bonus program and power cost equalization represented about 20 percent of the budget.
"I don't think those are the kinds of things we need to go at," he said.
But he said all 14 state departments need "zero-based budgeting," under which they would have to justify each dollar.
He said resource development should supply new revenue.
Arness said lawmakers should establish a spending cap, though he said the state would likely need to "ratchet down" to the cap over time. Then a funding program should be established so that the parameters of the state budget could be known years in advance.
Hawkins said he questioned whether the state should be involved in the Matanuska Maid dairy project. He said a lot of things the state is involved in should be on the table. He noted the kinds of costs the state is picking up on behalf of municipalities, including police and courts.
"When you start considering the cost of state government, start looking around at what the state is picking up, folks," he said.
VinZant said the state is operating on a $7.3 billion budget. Then he said there were "22 major departments and 155 sub-departments." (Actually, Alaska's government is divided into 14 named departments, with numerous divisions and agencies.)
VinZant suggested looking at turning some departments over to private enterprise, which he said would do a better job for less money. The state Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation was one example he noted.
On the question of subsistence, Ward said everyone in Alaska is equal and a rural preference is wrong.
VinZant said everyone is entitled to subsistence hunting and fishing and suggested a "use it or lose it" program.
Arness, Hawkins, Wagoner all said Alaskans should be given the opportunity to vote on an amendment to the Alaska Constitution regarding subsistence.
The candidates all voiced concerns about the dwindling Constitutional Budget Reserve account.
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