Prop 2 key issue in assembly races

Posted: Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Editor's note: Each of the candidates was asked to submit an opinion piece and to fill out a questionnaire provided by the Clarion. Borough assembly candidates' opinion pieces may be found and their questionnaire responses may be found in Monday's Clarion.

Next Tuesday's municipal election will differ significantly from previous years because voters' decision on an assembly term-limit ballot proposition could turn the outcomes of three Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly races on their heads.

A trio of incumbent assembly members two of them facing challengers are seeking re-election. But the provisions of Proposition 2, which seeks to impose term limits on assembly seats, would prevent them from taking office.

Prop 2 would limit assembly members to no more than two consecutive terms and require a nearly three-year-long hiatus before serving again. More than that, it would include provisions that count terms already served retroactively.

Propositions 2 and 3 impose the same term-limit provisions on the assembly and the school board and were placed on the ballot by initiative drives sponsored by the group Alliance of Concerned Taxpayers, or ACT.

For Assemblymen Gary Superman, of Nikiski, Pete Sprague, of Soldotna, and Paul Fischer, of Kasilof, all of whom have served multiple consecutive terms, the success of Prop 2 at the ballot box, would be immediately problematic. They could win re-election in their districts, yet be prevented from assuming their offices if the proposition passes boroughwide. The issues seem destined for court.

Nevertheless, will Superman, Sprague and Fischer are actively campaigning, betting, first, that voters will recognize an inherent conflict in voting for an incumbent on the one hand and supporting term limits on the other, and second, that if they win and Prop 2 is approved, that its provision denying them their seats would not withstand a legal challenge.

Also high on voters' minds are property and sales taxes. In the last several months, the assembly has increased the 2-percent sales tax to 3 percent effective Jan. 1, 2008 (a highly controversial move), and lowered the mill levy by a full mill on property taxes. Peninsula residents have been split on those decisions.

Superman, a Nikiski businessman and resident of Alaska since 1974, faces no challenger in his race for a third consecutive term from District 3 (Nikiski). He first served on the assembly from 1989 to 1992. He was elected again in 2001 and has served ever since.

Sprague, a retired letter carrier who has lived in Alaska 32 years, is seeking another term as the District 4 (Soldotna) representative. He has served on the body since 1998, also surviving elections in 2001, 2002 (after reapportionment) and 2004.

Ed Oberts, a lifelong resident of the borough, is a real estate agent who served as assistant to former Mayor Dale Bagley from 1999 to 2005. He is challenging Sprague.

Of all the incumbents, Fischer, of Kasilof, has served the most time on the assembly, spending from 1976 until 1982 when he was elected to the Alaska Senate where he served for 10 years. He was elected to the assembly again in 1994 and has won re-election ever since. He is seeking another term representing District 7 (Central).

Commercial fisherman Bill Holt, of Kasilof, is running against Fischer. He has not held elected government office before, but is active in fisheries organizations, including the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association and the United Cook Inlet Drift Association. He has been an Alaska resident for 28 years.

District 3 Nikiski

Superman faces opposition within his district from members of ACT, and those who may agree with that group's sponsorship of Proposition 2. Superman pulled no punches when it came to his view of the proposition.

"I've been pretty opinionated about it for obvious reasons," he said. "Now, I may not be running with the oppositional crowd, but I think categorically, people I've spoken too are voting against it. They're voting against it because it's aimed at booting me out."

Superman said ACT members are using the propositions to forward an agenda that is counter to supporting schools and borough services. It is one, he said, that is "not compatible with the majority of people on the peninsula."

No one from ACT within his district filed to run. Nor did an ACT official file anywhere else.

Superman said he is making an effort to speak at as many public forums as he can before the election to urge voters to oppose term limits.

"I've tried to bring awareness up, but people will still be confused," he said, adding that term limits have their place at the national level, perhaps, but not at the local level.

District 4 Soldotna

Sprague acknowledged this week that the Oct. 2 outcome of the term-limit proposition may be critical to his future on the assembly, but he is trying not to make that the central theme of his campaign, choosing instead to focus on other issues.

"Property tax relief is the really big one," he said. "The first step was raising the sales tax by a penny (which goes into effect in January) and, subsequently, in reducing the mill levy by one mill (already in effect)."

Those moves are an attempt to make the tax burden fair and equitable, he said.

"Property evaluations are going up, and property owners are bearing a disproportionate share of the tax burden," he said. "A redistribution of that burden is very much in order."

Property tax issues are one reason Sprague wants another term.

"There has been talk about trying to raise the tax exemption from $20,000 or putting a cap on the percentage increase (on assessments) each year. In my mind, the jury is still out on either idea, but I want a seat at the table when they are discussed. With my experience, I would add a lot to the conversation."

On term limits, Sprague said he opposed them on philosophical grounds at the local level, where they would limit voter choices.

The term limits issue looms large in Oberts' campaign. He believes it was Sprague, more than anyone, who led the assembly effort in 1998 to repeal term limits imposed by voters in 1992 and 1993.

"I believe the voters spoke clearly," Oberts said.

He acknowledged that the fact the proposition would count terms already served by sitting assembly members when imposing the two-term limit was problematic and that it could end up in court.

"It's unfortunate, but my opponent is the reason this has come forward," he said. "But I'm trying do this the old-fashioned way, though, by beating my opponent (at the polls)."

Oberts also said he opposes imposition of the 3-percent sales tax come January, though two years ago when he was running for borough mayor he did support a more modest, half-percent increase over the current tax. And, he was former mayor Dale Bagley's assistant when Bagley proposed, unsuccessfully, his own increase in the sales tax.

If elected, Oberts said, he would respect the wishes of voters who have opposed an increase in the sales tax and would continue in that vain "until I get a clear directive" from voters to do otherwise.

District 7 Kasilof

Fischer said Monday that if he wins re-election, he wouldn't run again, promising to "burn the few signs I have left." Still, he's ready to commit to his constituents.

"You don't lose an interest in an area you've lived in for 38 years," he said.

If he is re-seated, he wants to focus energy on creating vocational education opportunities on the peninsula. He said he was satisfied with the education system, save in that one area.

"About 75 percent of the kids don't go on to higher education," he said. "Maybe we can get a committee together ... and form a charter school, a whole high school for voc-ed. We've had a lot of lip service about voc-ed."

He also said he would focus on taxes and believes the borough should push the Legislature for action limiting the amount assessments can rise each year.

As for term limits, which could deny him his seat, Fischer said Proposition 2's (and 3's) retroactivity effect was "just not right," and hopes voters will turn it down.

Holt has had no experience in elected office. But the 28-year Alaska resident said he is ready to bring a new vitality to the assembly. He credits Fischer with having been a good representative, but his own experience on fisheries associations and the Tsalteshi Trails Association has left him with the opinion that those bodies are well served by fresh infusions of ideas, just as they are well served by experience.

He said he believes ACT has legitimate concerns and their intentions are good, but he disagrees with limits at the local level for assembly and school board.

"If elected, I want to be as effective as I can be, but there is a lot to be learned, and I think it would be difficult to learn all there is in just two terms," he said, adding that about the time an assembly member would have the necessary experience, term limits would prevent him or her from running.

"I can see (term limits) in well-paid positions like the mayor (where term limits already exist)," he said.

Holt also said he agrees with the current borough administration's and assembly's approach to fiscal control and their decision to raise the sales tax and lower the property tax, calling it a workable solution that can be adjusted if need be.

Hal Spence can be reached at hspence@ptialaska.net.



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