Senate, House candidates talk of education, budget funding

Posted: Thursday, October 21, 2004

With the election less than two weeks away, candidates for the Alaska Legislature are busy trying to get their messages out before voters head to the polls.

On Wednesday, candidates for House District 33 and Senate District Q spoke at the Kenai Chamber of Commerce in one of the final candidate forums of the election season. There, they discussed how they plan to work on issues ranging from education to the state budget if sent to Juneau.

Speaking first at the forum, Republican incumbent Sen. Tom Wagoner said voters should re-elect him because he believes the work he's done in the Senate especially on education funding has benefited the residents of the Kenai Peninsula, and that he can continue that work in the future.

"I think we pretty much took care of education to a point," he said.

Wagoner said he believes more is left to be done to increase education funding, but he believes the state is on the right track when it comes to most issues.

"Everything's pretty much on line," he said.

Wagoner's challenger Bob Merchant said he's running for seat Q based on a platform that includes education funding, protecting the permanent fund, ending fisheries disputes between user groups and bringing more natural gas to the peninsula.

Merchant said he believes, as a legislator, he can bring a nonpartisan approach to solving some of the state's contentious issues.

"I frankly am a little frustrated that we can't bring school funding and (fisheries) allocation disputes to some sort of conclusion," he said.

House District 33 includes two candidates vying to replace Republican Kelly Wolf, who decided not to run for re-election after serving one term in the House. Democrat Hal Smalley is a former House member who said he believes his experience and desire to create a long-term fiscal plan for the state makes him the best candidate for the job.

"I will continue to work to bring forward development and implementation of a long-range fiscal plan," Smalley said.

Republican Kurt Olson is a former Soldotna City Council member who worked for the past several years in Juneau as a legislative staff member for Wagoner. He said his main reason for running is a desire to see resource development go forward for Alaska.

"I feel we need a representative in Juneau from District 33 with the intent of developing the resources we have," Olson said.

When asked what should be done to deal with the state's budget, Olson said he thinks a cap on spending is the way to address the situation, which, because of high oil prices, is currently in good shape but was facing large deficits just a year ago.

Smalley stuck to his position that a plan must be put in place to look at long-range spending issues.

"Part of that (oil surplus money) we need to put in the bank," he said. "... We need to implement a plan and put it in place."

Wagoner said he believes the Legislature did a good job of making cuts when it had to, and that the biggest change he would make to the budget process would be to streamline the legislative process to seek out more strategic cuts.

"To find those places, it's going to take a lot different approach than we have in finance committees," he said.

Merchant said he thinks the budget can be trimmed by reducing the number of state employees at the mid-management level.

"We are paying way too much for management in this state," he said.

Perhaps the most telling question moderator Merrill Sikorski asked was challenging the candidates to come up with examples of how they differ from their opponents.

In the House debate, Smalley said he has a record of getting things done in Juneau and believes he can come through for peninsula residents.

"I think my campaign is more than just promises," he said. "... You're looking at a candidate that has experience, that has been there and has a voting record."

Olson said he believes his main advantage is he would be going to Juneau as a Republican and have more influence over state decisions.

"I'll be going down to Juneau as a member of the majority," he said.

Olson also took a jab at Smalley, saying the former House member failed to get much accomplished in Juneau.

"We've never had a representative from Kenai-Soldotna that was able to pass legislation in Juneau," Olson said.

Merchant said he would focus more on renewable resources such as fish, timber and tourism than would Wagoner, who he said puts too much emphasis on oil and gas.

"One of my primary emphasis is on renewable resources," he said.

Wagoner said his main advantage over Merchant is that he's in line to serve his constituents better because he's experienced and positioned for a powerful spot within the Legislature's committee structure.

"I will be the Senate Resources chairman," he said. "... We deal with all kids of issues affecting the Kenai Peninsula."

The Wednesday debate is not the last time House and Senate candidates from the central peninsula will have a chance to share their views with the public. The same candidates who spoke Wednesday will be present at a debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters scheduled to begin at 7 this evening at the Kenai Peninsula Borough Building. They'll be joined by Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, and Glen Martin of Sterling, who are running for the House District 34 seat in the Legislature.


Due to a reporters error, a quote in a story about Wednesdays candidates forum at the Kenai Chamber of Commerce was not correctly stated.

Challenging former representative Hal Smalleys voting record while in the Legislature, Smalleys opponent for the House District 33 seat, Kurt Olson, said, Weve never had a representative from Kenai-Soldotna that was unable to pass personal legislation in Juneau. Olson went on to say Smalley was, however, unable to pass four pieces of personal legislation while Smalley was in the Legislature from 1998 to 2000.

The Clarion regrets the error.

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