Lunchtime guests of the Kenai Chamber of Commerce got a double-dip of politicians Wednesday, as candidates for both House District 9 and Senate District E participated in an open forum.
Chamber president Fred Braun acted as moderator but did not ask any questions, leaving that to audience members.
All three hopefuls for District 9, which serves Kenai and Nikiski -- Republican Moderate James Price, Republican Mike Chenault, and incumbent Democrat Hal Smalley -- showed up. Two of the three candidates for District E -- Democrat Mike Szymanski and incumbent Republican Jerry Ward, were there. Green Party candidate William Bartee was absent.
The format allowed each candidate to speak for five minutes, then they all fielded questions from the crowd.
Below is a summary of each candidate's opening statement, followed by each question and the candidates' responses in the order they were given.
Price said he is a 12-year resident of the peninsula and is an oilfield worker, specializing in process instrumentation. He described himself as a pro-development fiscal conservative who supports the Alaska Constitution, self-determination, personal freedom and the principals of the new Republican Moderate Party.
"Republican Moderates were founded by and for fiscal conservatives who are fed up with business-as-usual politics that is going on now with both the major parties," Price said.
He said the state must develop a long-range budget plan, and the people must insist on balanced budgets.
He also said he supports the 10 mill tax cap initiative and is in favor of ballot Proposition 5, the hemp legalization initiative.
"I believe we should legalize the adult use of marijuana," he said.
Chenault said he's lived on the peninsula for 33 years, and that his business experience will make him an asset to the district. He is a current member of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District board, the Nikiski Fire Service Area Board and the Nikiski Chamber of Commerce board.
He said the state budget will be important to the people of the state, as well as road issues.
"We've had some lackluster years, last year in particular, where we had poor maintenance," he said.
He said he does not support the property tax cap, saying the borough assembly can handle taxes better. He also said he will vote no on the hemp issue because he believes it will lead to "worse things."
Smalley said he has been on the peninsula since 1974. He pulled out a flyer from his campaign two years ago and noted that it said, "I will listen to you and then respond."
"In the last two years we have had literally hundreds of contacts from you," he said.
He talked of how the phrase "cut the budget" has been used in recent years, and how the $250 million in cuts have "come home to roost" in District 9.
"The maintenance station in Nikiski was closed. In fact, it was flat shut down," he said. "In working with the commissioner, we were able to save those positions, ... and then one was transferred back to Nikiski for the winter."
He said he worked with Sen. John Torgerson, R-Kasilof, to restore money to open and fully staff the Nikiski maintenance yard for this winter.
He also spoke about how he began lobbying British Petroleum a year ago to bring its gas-to-liquids plant to Nikiski, and how he mediated the royalty dispute between Tesoro and the state and how that most likely kept the refinery in Nikiski open.
Szymanski said he would like to come back to the Kenai chamber a year from now as senator to give the same kind of positive report as Smalley.
"People want a legislator who's going to work in a positive way and be a problem solver, a consensus builder, to work with other legislators, to work with the administration, work with the congressional delegation," he said. "Because that's how we're going to accomplish those goals we've all set out here, which are related to jobs, economic development and maintaining our roads."
Szymanski said the district needs a "positive, forward-thinking legislator" who will go to Juneau and work with people, who everyone can be proud of.
"And that's how we're going to have a gas (pipeline) terminus in Nikiski. We're not going to have it by fighting with the (Gov. Tony) Knowles administration, fighting with (Sen.) Ted Stevens, fighting with any of the other congressional members," he said. "We're going to have it if we can work together as a team. And that's what I propose to do as your senator over the next four years."
Ward thanked the chamber members for giving him the opportunity to serve them for the last four years.
"Other than my relationship with the Lord and my family, it's been the greatest honor that I've ever had in my life, and I really do thank you for it," he said.
He said he is running for re-election because he doesn't believe his job in Juneau is done.
He said the state needs to continue to consolidate offices and to pursue more privatization. He said if the state continues to spend more than it takes in, the oil and timber companies will be "taxed out of existence."
He said that after he is re-elected, he will get the state capital moved to the Railbelt, the state attorney general will be an elected position, and the budget will fit the population of the state. He also said he will have 10 million acres of state land transferred to private hands.
"If you would like one of your own there, send me back, and I will do your bidding for you," he said.
Question: Who are you supporting for president?
Price said he is supporting Libertarian candidate Harry Brown.
Chenault said he would support George W. Bush.
Smalley said he has not made a decision yet, but said he strongly disagrees with Al Gore's position on not opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil exploration. He said he is more closely aligned with Bush on the issue. However, he said because of Gore's military record, he thinks that Gore would do a better job as commander in chief.
Saying his Democratic Party friends won't like his decision, Szymanski said he can't support Gore.
"I'll probably vote tomorrow for Bush," he said. "He's probably the best person to represent the state of Alaska's interests."
Ward said he agrees with Szymanski.
"We can't have Al Gore whatsoever," he said. "I encourage everybody to vote for George Bush."
Question: How would you approach increasing funding for education on the peninsula?
Price said he believes there is money that is in education budgets for administration that can still be cut, though he said teachers should be paid what they're worth.
Chenault said the district cost for administration is 3 to 4 percent and could stand to take more cuts. He said the foundation funding formula that the state uses to disburse funds to schools needs to be modified to better benefit local schools.
Smalley said the foundation formula needs to be looked at as well, and that it should be inflation-proofed.
Szymanski said there are several things the Legislature can do to reimburse school districts that lose students to correspondence and home schooling and the funding that go with them. He suggested consolidation of school districts should be looked at as well.
Ward, too, said the foundation formula should be looked at.
"We should not be afraid of reducing those parts of it that are completely out of whack," he said. "There's a lot of rural Alaska that is. There are people that, literally, are making too much money out there for the amount of services that are going into the classroom."
He also suggested endowing education funding with land grants, much like the University of Alaska has.
Question: Would you support the incorporation of Nikiski as a first- or second-class city?
Ward said he would support it.
Szymanski said he'd let the people vote on it.
Smalley said it is not a problem for him if the people of Nikiski wanted to do that.
Chenault said he was in full agreement with the others' statements.
Price said he would support the vote of the people, but predicted they would vote no, just as he would.
Question: What will you do to increase funding to municipalities due to decreased funding in municipal assistance and revenue sharing?
Ward said he would continue consolidation and privatization in state government, thereby freeing up money that could go to municipalities.
Szymanski said the Legislature needs to maintain municipal assistance and revenue sharing at a level that is representative of revenue. He said cuts to the programs are directly responsible for increased local taxes.
Smalley said he would stop the cuts to the programs, saying far too much has already been cut. He said a piece of legislation called the "Community Dividend Program" should be looked at.
Chenault said the cuts need to be stopped, but unless other services are reduced, they will continue.
Price said the size and authority of government needs to be reduced so the state can live within its means.
Question: What do you feel is the role of the Legislature if the tax cap passes? How will you vote in November?
Price said he will vote for the tax cap initiative.
"I don't believe it will have an astronomical effect on the government," he said.
Chenault said he will vote no on the issue. He said Nikiski would be affected, with its 12.7 mill tax rate.
"The mill rate we currently pay has been voted on by the voters. And we've agreed to pay that for the services we want," he said. "I don't feel a state initiative should take that right away."
Smalley, too, said he was voting no, calling the tax cap a slap in the face of local control.
"If the largest communities in the state have financial problems, they should resolve it at their own local level, like many other districts have and replace those lost revenues with sales tax," he said.
Szymanski labeled the tax cap as irresponsible, irrelevant and insane.
"It will cause chaos on the local level," he said. "I am adamantly opposed to it. It's just not good government."
If it passed, he said, he would be the first one to sponsor legislation to return natural resource development revenue to the communities where they were generated.
Ward said he would vote no on the tax cap initiative, but said he understands why 40,000 people signed the petition.
"It's one of the only ways people have of getting a handle on government," he said.
Question: Do you feel tourism taxes are an appropriate way to fill the budget gap. And should some of that money be returned to the industry?
Ward said people who use services should pay for them through user fees.
Szymanski said no, explaining he was not a "tax-and-spend politician." He said if local governments want to enact taxes, that's up to them.
Smalley agreed that he would support local communities levying taxes if they saw fit.
Chenault said tourists should pay for the services the people of the state have to provide for them. He said he could go along with a portion of the money going back to the industry for promotion.
Price said he supports user fees in the form of tourism taxes because it's fairer than taxing people on their property.
Question: What is the most important issue facing your district?
Price said it is the state budget.
Smalley said it is the development of a long-range fiscal plan for the state.
Szymanski said it is a combination of economic development, jobs and a sound financial plan for the future.
Ward said making sure government lives within its means is the most important issue.
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