Candidates vying for the District 8 seat in the state House of Representatives took their messages to the Greater Soldotna Chamber of Commerce Tuesday.
All six contenders who will be on the Aug. 22 primary ballot -- Republicans Ken Lancaster, the mayor of Soldotna, Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly member Grace Merkes, Charlie Parker, Carolyn Reynolds and Larry Smith, and lone Democrat Pete Sprague also a borough assembly member -- spoke to a full house at the chamber's luncheon at the Riverside House. This fall, one of them will replace Rep. Gary Davis, R-Soldotna, who chose not to seek re-election.
District 8 includes parts of the Kenai Peninsula from Soldotna north and east, including Sterling, Hope, Seward and all points in between.
The candidates reiterated their campaign themes and tackled informal questions from the audience on assorted topics ranging from schools to roadside toilets to the health of the Kenai River.
Some questions were directed to specific candidates, and not all candidates answered all questions. Here is a summary of their remarks in the order spoken.
Parker: Parker outlined his three-part plan for a long-term solution to the state's economic woes.
He wants to reactivate plans to build a hydroelectric project on the Susitna River, reduce pay for all state workers and put half of the Alaska Permanent Fund earnings into a fund to generate income for state government, he said.
Smith: Smith reviewed his background in Alaska, the military and the construction industry, adding that he has always been involved with the peninsula's Republican Party.
"I consider myself just the average working man," he said.
The state government's fiscal crisis is not altogether due to lack of money, he said, and the state should have more financial accountability to the public via an elected auditor.
Merkes: Merkes cited her 20-plus years of diverse public service on the peninsula.
"I think having a background in local government is an advantage," she said. "I can tell you things I want to do, but I can also tell you what I've done."
In the last election, she unsuccessfully ran for the seat as a Democrat against incumbent Davis. This year she is running as a moderate Republican, she explained, because she concluded that party's platform was more aligned with her beliefs than that of the Democrats.
Reynolds: Reynolds stressed her interests in preserving the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend payments to citizens and reducing government spending.
If the dividends disappeared, the economy would be devastated and some businesses would have difficulty surviving the lean winter months, she said.
Education funding needs to be guided more directly into classrooms, and schooling standards should be raised. The state has twice as much money as it needs, and per capita spending has gone up too much over the past 25 years, she said.
"We need to focus on quality rather than quantity spending," she said.
Lancaster: Lancaster sketched his background as an Alaskan with 38 years in Soldotna whose public service includes the current seat of Soldotna's mayor.
Accountability and listening to people are his priorities, he said.
"We need a long-term fiscal plan," he said. "We need a goal."
He listed economic projects he favors for enhancing the future economy, including a rail link to Canada, developing high technology infrastructure and upgrading the University of Alaska to retain and attract young talent.
Sprague: Sprague's theme is economic stability, he said.
He pointed to changing demographics and the aging of the state's average population. He urged improvement of the education system at all levels as a foundation for a strong future for young Alaskans. Sprague said he supports legislation that would increase the state's funding per student.
What is the value of experience vs. being a newcomer? (addressed to Smith)
Smith: "Part of their record is raising taxes and taking personal property rights," he said.
He criticized regulations dealing with development along the Kenai River and other waterways and said one of his priorities in Juneau would be to fight for personal property rights.
Reynolds was asked to elaborate on her position.
Reynolds: Her top priority is to safeguard the Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend, she stressed. On all other topics, she pledged to follow what she called "the will of the people."
Lancaster was asked about his stance on the state's Kenai Area Plan and wilderness regulations.
Lancaster: He supports the Kenai Area Plan developed for state-owned lands, he said. He emphasized that he opposes proposals to ban new roadways in roadless areas, but he does support protection of river and stream habitats.
What do the candidates see as the state's role in promoting the tourism industry and marketing Alaska as a destination?
Smith: During his recent trip to the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, he found people enthused about visiting Alaska. But he is skeptical about a role for the state government in promotion.
"I am not sure we need to increase the funding for it, if each of us would act as an ambassador for the state," he said.
He advocates projects that would improve the experiences of visitors here, such as more toilets and turnouts to minimize traffic backups, he said.
Reynolds: She sees the problem of enhancing tourism as belonging to the private, not public sector, she said.
"I like anything that enhances business," she said. "... But I believe it is the responsibility of the businesses to build a better mousetrap."
Merkes: Tourism is a pillar of the state economy and will become more important as oil reserves decline, she said.
Private businesses need to pay for promoting the industry, but government should partner with industry to assist, she said.
Lancaster: Alaskans need to develop visitation during the spring and fall shoulder season and do promotions, he said.
Sprague: Tourism is important, he said, and he agreed with the statements of other candidates about courting shoulder season visitors and upgrading toilet facilities.
"But we have to be willing to fund it," he warned.
The dip in tourism reported so far this year may reflect higher gas prices nationwide, rather than a problem with Alaska's reputation, he said.
Smith: Funding is available for such projects, but highway money has been earmarked for projects other than the people's priorities, such as toilet improvements, he said.
What are the candidates' views on protecting the Kenai River from damage?
Lancaster: "Efforts are being made to protect the habitat," he said.
He noted that he has been active in projects dealing with riverbank restoration and protection.
Reynolds: Government has put a lot of money into projects like that. Entities, such as the Kenai Peninsula Borough, have savings that should be invested in such projects.
Sprague: The borough assembly has been active in watershed protection. He wrote the recently passed ordinance that expands tax breaks for landowners who restore private riverbank property from the Kenai River to other Kenai Peninsula salmon streams, he said.
What is a specific, concrete idea candidates have on improving education?
Smith: The state should give the University of Alaska the proposed land endowment and should give land endowments to other educational institutions as well.
"Let's endow them with some land and let them manage it," he said.
Merkes: It is time to re-examine the state's education foundation formula, which is used to fund school districts, she said.
Another key factor is getting parents more involved. Giving parents a report card of their own is one idea to look at, she said.
Reynolds: "There are too many administrators and not enough teachers," she said. "I don't see how we need all this supporting staff."
Lancaster: "The foundation formula does need to be revisited," he said. "One size does not fit all."
A land endowment for schools would not be a cure-all. It would need to be set up carefully to ensure that it generated a revenue stream, he warned.
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