Squaring off at a political forum in Soldotna on Thursday, Republican incumbent Rep. Mike Chenault and his Republican Moderate challenger, James R. Price, who are seeking the House District 34 seat, promised to make fiscal responsibility cornerstones of their legislative terms.
But they differed on how to achieve that goal and how the last Legislature performed.
Chenault said flatly he does not believe in income taxes and would not tap the Alaska Permanent Fund to close the fiscal gap facing the state without a vote of the public.
"I don't believe I'm any different than anyone in this room," he said, scanning the audience of perhaps 30 or 40. "I don't believe there's anyone here that wants to pay tax. But until we can, at a minimum, look at how the state government spends its money and what programs we are involved in that maybe we shouldn't be involved in, I cannot come and face these people and say that we've done all we can."
Price said the government needs to focus on roads, schools and public safety, its primary mandates.
"That's the problem," he said. "I believe the state government is all over the board creating all kinds of projects."
He called for more cuts, saying he believes there is fat in the capital and operating budgets. He said he wouldn't touch the permanent fund without a vote of the people and wants to avoid being forced into a position where taxes are the only solution.
"We need to start at a zero-based budget to where every department justifies every dime that they are spending," he said.
Price listed his top three priorities as closing the fiscal gap, lowering the cost of government and facing up to problems in funding education.
"The million dollar question is, what are we going to do to solve our budget crisis?" Price said.
"I believe the Legislature has failed to address that and by increasing the budget the last two years has in essence ignored the problem and is leading us to an inevitable grab of the permanent fund which I am absolutely against. The only solution is to find efficiencies and cut spending."
Chenault said his priorities are looking at the state's fiscal policies, finding efficiencies and increasing funding for education.
"I was dismayed to see as much time spent on ways to tax Alaskans or businesses in Alaska, and almost no time spent looking at efficiencies in government," he said. "That is my major thing I would be looking at."
Price gave the last Legislature a grade of D.
"They have not faced reality of the situation," he said. "It's too easy to go down there -- you want to do everything for your district, you want to grab everything you can grab, but that has backed us into a terrible corner."
Chenault, a member of that Legislature, gave it a C.
"I don't think that we were extraordinary in anything that we really accomplished, and I wouldn't say we were probably the worst, but I haven't really looked at the history of it," he said.
He added that getting things done in Juneau requires 60 members essentially to find compromise, and that isn't easy.
Price and Chenault each said they would remain accessible to constituents and listen and react to what they had to say.
"I feel there has been a failure of the current administration and Legislature to do that," Price said.
Chenault said he believes he has been responsive.
"I talk to people on a regular basis. My door is open. I do listen to what my constituents have to say," he said. "I also look at the overall picture. There are things that need to change."
On subsistence, Price said the federal government had backed the state into a corner over rural preference. He said the public should vote on the question, saying he prefers a rural preference in times of shortage. Such a vote would return control of fish and game management back to the state.
Chenault took a different tack, warning that a rural preference raised serious constitutional questions.
"My fear of letting the citizens of Alaska vote on whether we should have a rural subsistence is that we go against what the state constitution has to say and what the federal constitution has to say," he said. "We create two classes of people."
Asked about the use of closed caucuses, Chenault said he attended them but was not comfortable about it. He said he considered staying fully informed part of his job.
"I'm not real crazy about closed-door caucuses," he said. "That is the system. I could buck the system and not go to those meetings, but I not only hurt myself, but I hurt the members of my community."
Price said he adamantly opposes closed-door meetings.
"I think it is wrong," he said. "Anything I have to say that has to do with public policies I like to say to the public."
Both candidates said they support a fairer level of funding for Kenai Peninsula Borough schools and want to see the state's education foundation formula changed.
On the controversial closed primary system, Price said it should be changed and reopened. Chenault said he voted to close the primary, believing at the time that was the proper position to take based on a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.
"We may have gone a step too far," Chenault said, adding that if parties want closed primaries, perhaps they should be ready to pay for them themselves.
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