Candidates for House District 33 expressed differences Tuesday over the role of the state government in making health insurance affordable to Alaskans.
Speaking before a Soldotna Chamber of Commerce luncheon audience, Republican Party hopeful Kelly Wolf said he knows firsthand that health care insurance is expensive, but nevertheless said the state may do better to stay out of the health care cost fray.
"I know that health care insurance is expensive," he said. "My mother just went through surgery last year with no health care insurance. If she hadn't had surgery, she wouldn't be alive today. I completely understand, but I do have reservations about the state of Alaska being involved in carrying health insurance for people. It concerns me because we are talking about bureaucracy and government agencies being involved."
Democratic Party candidate Hal Smalley said the Legislature should consider some kind of health-care insurance program and noted that attempts toward that end already have been made by the Legislature.
"This past legislative session there was a health care bill in front of the Legislature," he said. "This bill basically allowed private sector individuals to have the ability to purchase health care coverage from some of the government insurance programs that are out there. The idea behind it being the more individuals covered, hopefully there would be a reduction in the rate those individuals would be paying."
House Bill 315 passed the House, but died in the Senate Health and Social Services Committee. It would have allowed the Department of Administration to obtain group health care insurance policies for small business employers, nonprofit organizations, special services organizations and the like.
Smalley called health care a major concern and noted his own family had had some health care issues to deal with, too. Fortunately, he said, they had health care coverage.
"People cannot afford to be without health care coverage," he said. "I don't think people should be placed in a position where they have to decide what kind of treatment they should get based on what they can afford."
"This is something the Legislature needs to look at, and I would support reintroduction of that bill and going through that process," Smalley added.
On closing the fiscal gap and state spending, Wolf said he would work toward increased and faster development of the state's natural resources to help raise revenue. He also said he favors cutting administrative positions in state government.
"Yes, I know that means cutting jobs. I understand that that is not something people will be very appreciative of. But tough decisions do have to be made. We are in a situation with our fiscal spending. Let's face it folks, if your home income was $1,000 a month and you're spending $1,200 a month to live, you are going to run into a problem. If we operated our businesses like the government does, we'd either be in the poor house or in jail -- one or the other, or both," he said.
Smalley noted that the state's Constitutional Budget Reserve account is only two or three years away from depletion. That's the state savings account that has been tapped repeatedly for years to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars to cover annual budget shortfalls. What the state needs, Smalley said, is a workable long-range fiscal plan.
"Everything must be on the table" to create one, he said.
Asked about whether the state should be doing more to help the tourism industry, the two candidates differed again.
Wolf said he thought current government appropriations toward tourism were adequate.
"I believe the tourism industry needs to start carrying its own," he said.
The state is not doing nearly enough, Smalley said, adding that Hawaii spends roughly $20 million a year promoting tourist trade, while Alaska devotes only a small fraction of that.
According to the Office of Management and Budget, the current state budget appropriates slightly more than $4 million to tourism marketing. According to the state budget office in Hawaii, that state's tourism authority had a $60 million budget last year, fed by, among other sources, a hotel tax.
Smalley said it would be good for the state and the local communities to look for ways to aid the tourism industry, especially the smaller businesses.
"If and when we do look at increased spending for tourism, let's make sure that it is spread out equitably, not just the large component of the industry, but the entire industry," he said.
Whoever wins Nov. 5 will represent a district including Kenai and Soldotna, cities that compete as well as cooperate with each other and that have a mutual interest in the health of the Kenai River. Both candidates said they would work for the health of the river.
Smalley said developing water and sewer systems was crucial to avoid problems along the river 10 or 20 years in the future. He also said he would work for better roads and to protect municipal assistance for the two municipalities.
Wolf said Kenai and Soldotna depend on each other and he could work effectively with both communities. It is time to drive "a stake through the heart" of any rivalry between the two, he added.
Both candidates said resource development was important to the economy of the state. Smalley urged caution, however, before driving new roads into the wilderness just to make resources available. Roads are expensive and so is their maintenance, he said.
Both candidates said they would support a natural gas pipeline from the North Slope.
They also would not act to tap the Alaska Permanent Fund without a vote of the people.
Wolf said if he is elected, he likely would enter the Legislature as a member of the majority party. Current polls indicate the GOP will retain control of the Alaska House and Senate, and Kenai Peninsula legislative seats may well be retained by the Republicans.
"I feel very strongly that we can take one voice down to the Legislature," Wolf said. "I, myself, and my fellow Republicans can represent the Kenai Peninsula in the majority in the Legislature."
Smalley said he believes he got along well with the majority Republicans when he served in the House from 1998 to 2000. Smalley said he doesn't think voters are looking for more Democrats or Republicans in Juneau.
They are looking for "an Alaskan legislator working for you," he said.
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