The two candidates for the newly created House District 34 found common ground on the capital move issue -- both support a move -- but took different approaches to such issues as closing the fiscal gap and legalizing marijuana.
Incumbent Republican Mike Chenault and Republican Moderate James Price were featured in a Wednesday forum at the Kenai Chamber of Commerce's weekly noon luncheon. They are the only candidates for the district that covers a vast area of the central and northern Kenai Peninsula from the north side of the North Fork of the Anchor River to Turnagain Arm and from Nikiski east to the edge of House District 35 at about the Russian River.
Marge Hays and Sammy Crawford of the Alaska League of Women Voters moderated the discussion by asking each candidate a series of questions and then opening up for questions from the floor.
Chenault, who has been a resident of both Kenai and Nikiski in the past 35 years, was first elected two years ago to represent the former District 9, which included Nikiski and Kenai. He is a former member of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Board of Education.
Price, who has lived in the area for 14 years, played a leading role in the effort to allow the public to vote on a private prison proposed for the peninsula. Currently, he is involved in the initiative to repeal the borough tax on nonprepared food items.
Price acknowledged the Republican Moderate Party is struggling to maintain the required 3 percent of voters necessary for official party status. He assured the audience, however, that this will not affect his campaign.
"I am running on my position, for the people not the party," he said.
Candidates were first asked to list their three top priorities for the next legislative session.
Price said he would find a way to reduce the state budget, work on raising the level of honesty between legislators and their constituents and reduce the influence of special interest by referring to constitutional mandates to govern legislative decisions.
Blending his first and second priority together under the umbrella of fiscal issues, Chenault agreed that the budget needs to be addressed. However, he said that the deficit issue could be looked at in multiple ways and, in his opinion, no one group or individual has come up with an appropriate solution.
"How to take care of (the budget deficit) is probably twofold or threefold," he said, adding that looking at different state departments and streamlining them might be a possibility.
Another priority Chenault identified was that he wanted to spend more time with different constituent issues. He was not, however, specific as to what those issues might be.
Candidates were asked to grade the past legislative session, with Chenault giving lawmakers a C+ or B and Price handing out a D-.
"I believe that the House probably did our job, but we may have passed something the Senate wasn't crazy about," Chenault said.
Price said he was "very disappointed" with what lawmakers accomplished and believes more could have been done to balance the budget by making cuts that would in turn close the fiscal gap.
The candidates were asked to explain how they would close the fiscal gap.
"That is a tough question," Chenault said. "What doesn't affect them is what people want to cut the most."
Price said he would start by looking at what is important and what is constitutionally mandated.
"Everything else needs to be reduced. We need to look hard at the role of government ... and what government is doing," he said.
He added that in two years the reserve account the government has been drawing from to help meet the cost of running government will be gone if spending continues at its current rate. If at that point money is extracted from the private sector to make up the difference, then the state will see a recession, he said.
Candidates also were asked to identify revenues they would try to use in closing the fiscal gap.
"I really think we can close the fiscal gap without any new revenues. We have a spending problem," Price said.
The Legislature needs to look at what the state Constitution requires money be spent on and then use funds only for those purposes, he said.
"(For instance), economic development is not a good investment if the economy is going under," Price said.
"There are a lot of revenues out there," he said, pointing to further development of natural resources as an option. "We can't continue to milk the cow as we currently do and look to citizens for taxes and industry for more taxes. I don't support taxes, and I don't support touching the permanent fund."
The candidates also were asked about a resolution to subsistence.
"It's a tough decision. If subsistence was easy it would have been handled years ago. I don't think there's been an answer yet," Chenault said, noting that a constitutional amendment giving rural areas a subsistence preference in times of shortage would create a class system in Alaska.
Price said he supports allowing the public to vote on the issue.
"As to whether we would have a rural privilege in times of shortage, if I'm elected, I would certainly promote an amendment," he said.
Candidates also were asked if any ethical changes need to be made in Juneau.
Price said he does not support allowing relatives of legislators to be lobbyists.
"There should be guidelines and controls," he said.
"I somewhat agree," Chenault said. "Maybe we do need to tighten up some of the ethics. I don't have any special agenda."
A question from the audience regarding the possible legalization of marijuana for recreational purposes garnered a short response from Chenault.
"No," he said.
Price, however, said he has publicly stated his support for the legalization of marijuana in the past and will continue to do so. He said he believes legalizing marijuana for adults would keep children from participating in other drugs, in part because the allure would be gone.
Candidates also were asked about Alaska's new blanket primary, which many refer to as a closed primary.
"I did vote for the closed primary. It should be parties electing who they want to run for office," Chenault said.
He said the California court's ruling to require closed elections left allowances for individual parties to decide to allow anyone, regardless of affiliation, to vote for them. He is against the current system of closed elections because the legislation passed in Alaska makes it next to impossible for this to happen.
"I am totally against the closed primary the way it was done," he said.
Candidates also were asked their opinions about moving the Legislature out of Juneau.
"I would like to see the capital moved. It needs to be centrally located," Chenault said.
He said he would prefer to see constituents voicing their concerns rather than lobbyists, something that would be easier if the Legislature was more accessible.
"I support moving the capital. I don't think I can add anything to what Mike already said," he said.
The candidates also were asked to address the issue of government involvement in private business.
"Where I have the most problem is when the state uses money to promote private business," Price said. "Promoting business isn't the best role of government. Let business promote itself. Business will support the state better than the state will support business."
Chenault partially agreed.
"Government should not compete with private enterprise," he said, adding the state needs to assist in certain situations. In those cases, government and business should work together, he said.
For the final question, the candidates were asked to describe a fair campaign.
Both candidates said they felt it would focus on the issues, especially ones that constituents viewed as important. Chenault and Price both also agreed that mudslinging was neither necessary or inevitable.
In his closing statement, Chenault acknowledged his wife and staff.
"People like to think how bright their legislators are. It's actually the staff that does all of the leg work," he said jokingly.
He left the audience with a request. "Hopefully, you'll let me back in November," he said.
Price used his closing statement to reiterate his platform.
He promised to "cut the pork" in the state budget.
"We need to change by electing members that would institute that change. We're at a crossroads," he said.
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