House forum addresses timely issues

Posted: Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Candidates for the Alaska State House of Representatives District 33 seat squared off in a forum-style debate Tuesday that had the group of three agreeing on solutions — but not details — for most of the issues presented.

Soldotna Mayor Dave Carey began the city’s chamber of commerce-sponsored forum with an opening statement designed to make clear his purpose for seeking the seat. House District 33 includes Soldotna, Kenai and Kalifornsky Beach Road.

“I’ve had numerous people ask me who I’m running against,” Carey said. “The answer is no one.”

Carey said he wants to work toward securing a stable future for residents of the central Kenai Peninsula.

“My greatest priority is to create long-term jobs for those who would live here and those who would like to live here,” he said.

Kurt Olson, the representative who currently holds the House 33 seat, said he wants to return to Juneau to continue the work he began there. Olson cited securing jobs and education funding and working toward fiscal responsibility as key among the promises he made to voters at the start of his service two years ago.

“I think we’ve been able to do a lot of those things,” he said.

Pete Sprague, an assemblyman with the Kenai Peninsula Borough and the lone Democrat in the field of candidates, appealed to the idea of change.

“I think the people are ready for a change; a change for the better,” Sprague said.

How that change happens was the first item up for discussion when moderator Evy Gebhardt asked if the candidates supported the current, closed primary system.

Olson, Carey and Sprague each said they did not, with Carey and Sprague throwing their support behind either open primaries or party-funded closed primaries as a solution. Carey also said Aug. 22 is the wrong date for primaries.

“It’s too early — a lot of us are very busy at that time,” he said.

Gebhardt asked how BP’s shutdown of Prudhoe Bay — and the potential loss of more than a billion dollars in state revenue that could result from it — should be dealt with by the Legislature.

Sprague, who was Outside when the news hit, said, “It certainly shook me. In the short term, we’re obviously going to have to tighten our belts.”

The incident speaks to the state’s dependence on oil revenues and the Legislature’s need to steady the revenue stream, he said.

“We need a financial plan that will eliminate the peaks and valleys we’ve had over the years,” he said.

Carey agreed, saying the situation should force Alaskans to examine the implications of the state’s dependence on oil.

Olson, however, said the Legislature already has taken some of those steps. The real figure representing lost income likely will be closer to $500 million, not $1 billion, he said.

“We saved $6 million this year and we’ve already saved $200 million,” Olson said. “I think we got the big spending off the table.”

The state’s unfunded liability to the Public Employees’ Retirement System (PERS) and Teachers’ Retirement System (TRS) came next and raised the ire of the current peninsula-stationed legislators.

“Whether its $5.7 billion or $1.7 billion, depending on who you talk to, our state workers paid every single thing the state told them to,” Carey said, adding the debt’s management has been lackluster thus far.

“This huge debt is being managed with a one-year crisis management mind-set.”

Sprague, who referred to the issue as “the 800-pound gorilla in the room,” agreed that the state is responsible to hold up its end of the retirement deal.

“I firmly believe this is a state problem,” he said.

Olson admitted the state has made mistakes. Actuarial assessments for the program were miscalculated, he said, and the mortality rates used until recently to calculate the state’s liability came from 1984, when the life expectancy was lower.

To begin the process of fixing the PERS/TRS problem, the company that made the mistakes has been replaced and the state is reworking the assessments to more accurately reflect economic realities, Olson said.

“We took the action we needed to take,” he said.

A few more rifts developed when the candidates were asked about the possibility of Gov. Frank Murkowski calling for a fourth special legislative session to restructure the state’s oil and gas production tax scheme. Olson said he is willing to keep going back until the job is done.

“It’s not anything we want to jump into unless it’s done right,” he said of the tax changes.

Carey, on the other hand, said the governor’s calls for a continued legislative presence in Juneau amount to “an abuse of power” and the lawmakers should not return until after November’s election.

“It is wrong for the governor to keep calling the Legislature back because they won’t pass the laws he wants passed,” he said.

Sprague also said the injection of new blood after the election could make a difference.

“There’s a lack of leadership on this issue that is causing the state to lose millions of dollars a day,” he said.

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