If those attending Tuesday’s Soldotna Chamber of Commerce luncheon were seeking a way to differentiate between the candidates vying to be Alaska’s next lieutenant governor, they may have left disappointed.
Republican Sean Parnell, Democrat Ethan Berkowitz and Independent Fay Von Gemmingen appeared to agree that the major issues facing the state were how to finance municipal aid, fund education, build a gas pipeline, promote business and create jobs. Where they differed was in angles of approach to those problems.
On the other hand, the candidates may have provided the audience with a clearer sense of who they are, their passion for the job, and what they hope to achieve if elected in November.
Parnell, running on the Republican party ticket with Sarah Palin, said the campaign was about moving the state forward, but doing things differently than in the past.
“It’s about restoring trust between the people and the people you elect,” he said.
Parnell spent eight years in the Legislature, four each in the House and Senate.
“I had the pleasure of being the co-chair of the Finance Committee when oil was $9 a barrel,” he said. “I know what it means to cut the budget and prioritize education and transportation.”
Parnell also served in the executive branch with the Department of Natural Resources from 2003-05. He is a lawyer.
Von Gemmingen, who is running on the Independent ticket with Andrew Halcro, said their ticket offered something “somewhere in the middle” of the major parties that can offer “some practical solutions to the many problems we have in the state.”
Von Gemmingen, a certified public accountant, served on the Anchorage Assembly for nine years, but recently moved to Palmer. She served on the budget advisory commission for three years and served nine years on the Alaska Municipal League. including one year as president.
“I got to see a lot of what the state government does to municipal governments,” she said. “I got to look at it from both sides, and it was a very interesting education.”
Berkowitz, who has served in the Legislature for 10 years, eight of them as House Minority Leader, is Democrat Tony Knowles’ running mate. He said Alaska faces some great choices, but the future is more than just the natural gas pipeline. It’s about creating opportunities for people to be self-reliant and for communities to be healthy, he said, adding that it was also about keeping promises longevity bonus, municipal assistance and revenue sharing, and ensuring all Alaskans access to low-cost energy.
“It’s about having an educational system that does more than treat each student like an interchangeable part,” he said. “There is a lot of focus in the educational system about standardized testing. I have never met a standardized kid.”
All three agreed that state financial assistance to local municipalities must be restored in some fashion.
Berkowitz said the municipal assistance and revenue sharing programs were a promise by the state to share the oil wealth with the public through their local governments.
“That’s important because it holds Alaska together as a single community,” he said.
Von Gemmingen said the most critical thing facing Alaskans is the shortage of funds at the local level.
“The needs at the local level never go away,” she said.
Parnell said a foundation of trust in a governor and lieutenant governor would lead to cooperation, adding that he also supported restoration of municipal assistance and revenue sharing.
On the cost of health insurance for small business owners, Parnell said a lack of physicians and nurses across Alaska was affecting health care costs, and said he supports increasing opportunities for training. He also said he has supported tort reform as a way to hold down insurance costs for businesses.
Noting that 120,000 Alaskans have no health insurance, including 20,000 children, Berkowitz said he and Knowles have proposed extending the Denali Kid Care program to all children, putting in place proven wellness and prevention programs, and giving small businesses the opportunity to pool together to purchase lower cost insurance for their employees.
Von Gemmingen said it was difficult to find doctors willing to tend to people on Social Security, and that a lack of insurance was sending many people to emergency rooms, further driving up costs. She agreed that Denali Kid Care should be expanded.
On funding schools and the controversial cost-differential factor that critics argue unfairly impacts rural districts, Berkowitz said the factor does not measure the true cost of educating individual students in smaller communities.
“Issues like the cost of energy, the cost of hiring and retaining teachers; those aren’t fairly compensated for,” he said. “We cannot treat students differently based on where they live. They are all entitled to a fair and equal education.”
Von Gemmingen, noting the ongoing lawsuit against the state over school funding now being heard in an Anchorage courtroom, said she hoped it resulted in a better outcome than the way money is distributed now.
“This area definitely got short-changed,” she said.
Parnell said it was all about equality of opportunity.
“That’s important in our school system,” he said. “The formula is set against you.”
He also said, however, that there were issues beyond the cost differential to be addressed, including the state’s drop-out rate. The entire system needs review, he said.
“I am willing to work on that,” he said.
Only one question of the many posed focused on something specifically within the purview of the lieutenant governor’s job ensuring fair elections. The candidates were asked about the allegedly problematic electronic voting machines and whether the manufacturer should be sued to recover any costs incurred by the state. None of the candidates addressed directly the question of a lawsuit, but they did note the importance of public trust in the election process.
“The most important thing for us to do is find out what is wrong,” Von Gemmingen said, adding that the Democratic Party had been asking for election data for some time and that what was recently turned over appeared to have been altered. “We have to figure out where it went wrong.”
Parnell said he had talked with Lt. Gov. Loren Leman about the issue. He said the initial decision not to release the information to the Democrats, which resulted in a lawsuit, and a subsequent decision reversing the first, were both based on advice from the state’s chief IT security officer.
“I don’t fault the lieutenant governor for relying on the best information he could get, but I do agree with Fay that the next lieutenant governor needs to make an assessment of the system, make sure that it has integrity, and that our elections can be free and fair.”
“The only thing that should be secret in the election process is who I voted for,” Berkowitz said. “Everything else should be absolutely transparent and available.”
In his own district, the voting machines produced a 200 percent turnout, he said.
“Something is not right,” he said.
The three candidates agreed there was a need for more vocational education in the state, and that some way must be found to meet the rising cost of state employee retirement programs.
Hal Spence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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