Two of the four candidates for Senate District Q showed up Thursday evening to answer voter questions at a forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters, but Jerry Ward, the Republican incumbent and clear front-runner in the polls, was not among them.
Neither was Green Party of Alaska candidate Tom Stroman, who has been all but invisible during the campaign.
Ward was speaking in Kenai at a meeting of disabled veterans, according to Sammy Crawford of the League of Women Voters.
Republican Moderate Tom Wagoner and Democrat Pat Hawkins fielded inquiries covering the budget gap, state spending, education funding and the closed primary system.
Wagoner and Hawkins were on the same page when asked their top priorities. Both said developing a long-range fiscal plan was vital. Hawkins said it should be the first order of business.
Wagoner agreed, but also cautioned constituents not to expect miracles. Alaskans have been calling for long-range fiscal planning since oil began flowing down the pipeline, he said.
"If they (the members of successive legislatures) can't do it in the last 25 years, please don't expect me, when you elect me, to do it in two years," he said.
Both candidates cited increased education funding for Kenai Peninsula schools as high on their list of things to do. Hawkins also noted a need for more state troopers.
Wagoner and Hawkins rated the work of the Alaska House and Senate during the last session. Each gave the House a C for a good try at addressing the state's fiscal gap, but tendered state senators a failing grade for ignoring House efforts and dropping the ball.
Crawford said one of the concerns of the League of Women Voters was the poor voter turnout at recent elections and the apparent cynicism of the electorate over politics in general. She asked how the candidates would encourage better voter participation and how they would be accountable to voters.
"That is one of the main reasons that I ran," Hawkins said. "I want to have a change, and I want to see people get involved in the political process."
He said he has found it hard to get volunteers to help with the campaign.
"People are just turned off by no fiscal plan, they are turned off by schools deteriorating, and they want to see a change. They want honest people in office, and I offer that," he said.
Wagoner said voters need to be given a reason to vote and that modern technology should be employed to make it easier.
"The state of Alaska should take a lesson from states like Oregon and Washington," he said. "We probably have more computers per household in the state of Alaska than any other state. Why not go to an online vote." He also suggested looking at expanding the use of voting by mail.
Another issue on which the candidates agreed is that Alaskans should be given the opportunity to vote on the question of a rural preference for subsistence. They decried the resistance of the Legislature to such a constitutional ballot measure.
Where the candidates differed most, perhaps, was over how to attack the fiscal gap. A question asking how they would address school financing gave Hawkins a chance to restate his position on taxes. He noted that spending on schools has declined by 20 percent since around 1990 due to inflation. The state's school funding formula needs to be fixed, he said.
"Now if you want to ask where do we come up with the money ... I favor an income tax. I'm giving you the straight facts. I'm not going to sit here and say 'no, we'll figure out something, we'll cut it (state spending).' We're not going to cut it," he said. "They haven't cut the budget in 10 years. That's the facts, folks. It's very simple."
He promised to "save Alaskan's Permanent Fund," but warned that unless the gap is closed -- and that would likely require taxation -- in a few years the Legislature would have little choice but to look to the permanent fund to finance state government programs. He said those who think state lawmakers will cut the state out of its fiscal problems might just as well "believe in the tooth fairy."
Wagoner agreed in principal, if not in degree.
"Well, I don't think it's as critical as Pat says," Wagoner said.
He said he would look for efficiencies of scale. He suggested revisiting how state schools once were run before decentralization back in 1975. Wagoner said he thinks there is "some real waste going on" in the state's educational system and that needs to be addressed.
Later, Wagoner said there was "a lot of smoke and mirrors" in the way the state budget is built.
Wagoner said he saw no benefit in the closed primary system created by the Republican Party-led Legislature.
"Our system right now in the primary is a total disgrace," he said. "It needs to be changed back."
He said the Republican argument that the primary system had to be changed because of a U.S. Su-preme Court ruling in a California case was "a bunch of hooey."
Hawkins called the primary system "the biggest farce of all time." If a party wants a closed primary, it should pay for it, he said.
The candidates differed over moving the Legislature. Hawkins said no; Wagoner said yes.
Asked if state lawmakers should conduct business by video teleconference, Hawkins said no, that it was important for legislators to meet face to face. Wagoner said he wasn't against or in favor, but suggested it could be explored.
Hawkins said he did not think the Department of Health and Social Services received enough funding. Wagoner said he was no expert but would study the issue.
Neither favored convening a constitutional convention, but both said it might be time to alter the Alaska Constitution to permit designating specific tax revenues, such as those on tobacco, alcohol and fuel, to specific programs like schools and roads, rather than having those dollars lumped into the general fund where there is no guarantee where they will end up in the budget.
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