Candidates debate closed meetings, budget, pipeline

Posted: Sunday, October 24, 2004

In the Alaska Legislature, central Kenai Peninsula residents are represented by three voices. Who those three voices will be depends on the results of the upcoming general election, when two representatives and one senator will be chosen from six candidates.

Those candidates are Glen Martin of Sterling, Mike Chenault of Nikiski, Bob Merchant, Tom Wagoner and Hal Smalley of Kenai and Kurt Olson of Soldotna. The six gathered Thursday at a forum sponsored by the Kenai Peninsula League of Women's Voters to discuss how they would best serve the peninsula if elected.

Martin is running as a nonpartisan challenger to incumbent Republican Chenault for the District 34 seat in the state House. District 34 covers Sterling and Nikiski, as well as the unincorporated areas of the borough south of Soldotna all the way to Anchor Point.

During the forum, Martin said his main reason for running is to give area residents a different kind of voice in the political process that takes place in Juneau.

"I just think we can do better," he said.

Martin's frustration with politics came out strongly when asked about closed-door caucus meetings in the Legislature.

"I think any time we have a closed-door meeting, we're hiding something," he said. "I'm dead against closed-door meetings."

As the incumbent, Chenault said he believes he's done a good job serving the people, and that as a member of the majority in the House, he's able to get things done for his constituents. Although he said he's not a big fan of closed caucus meetings, they're one of the necessary evils of doing business in the Legislature.

"If it's an issue that affects my constituents, you can bet I'll be in that meeting," Chenault said.

Chenault and Martin de-scribe themselves as fiscally conservative, and both said there's room in the state's budget process to cut costs and be more efficient.

If elected, Martin said he'd advocate a sensible approach to spending in Juneau.

"You don't spend more than you have coming in," he said.

The main difference between the two candidates during Thursday's debate appeared to be Martin's desire to remain nonpartisan. He said he believes the Democrats and Republicans have become too closely linked and yet still can't get anything accomplished because of partisan bickering.

"I can't tell the difference," he said.

Chenault countered Martin's argument by saying that as a member of the Republican majority in the house, he's been able to get more done in the Legislature than a nonpartisan representative ever could.

"That is the system we're involved in," he said. "... If you want to get anything done, you will be sitting in the majority."

Merchant is running as a nonpartisan candidate in an effort to unseat incumbent Republican Sen. Wagoner for the District Q seat, which covers the peninsula from Nikiski to Anchor Point.

Merchant said he's running a campaign based on four core issues: schools, getting natural gas to the Cook Inlet region, protecting the permanent fund and creating a long-term fiscal plan for Alaska.

"I believe the state has yet to fit the amount of government we have presently into the amount of income we get on a yearly basis," he said. "... It's as if the state has been trying to match the income to the amount of government we have."

Wagoner said he's worked in Juneau to put a limit on state spending and plans to continue that fight if he's re-elected.

"I've worked to put in plans for a reasonable spending limit," he said. "... That's the start of a fiscal plan."

Hoping to represent District 33 (Kenai and Soldotna) in the House are Hal Smalley and Kurt Olson. Olson agreed with Wagoner on controlling the level of state expenditures.

"The first thing we need to do is implement a spending cap," he said.

For his part, Smalley said he'd like to see the Legislature take a broad look at all its options as it formulates a long-term fiscal plan.

"Everything has to come on the table to be discussed," he said.

Smalley, a Democrat, said he believes he's the best person to represent the district because he's willing to work with legislators on both sides of the aisle.

"There's no place in Juneau for partisan politics," he said. "We are 60 legislators, we need to work as 60 legislators."

Olson said he would not play politics in Juneau and cited his main reason for running as a desire to serve the people of the central peninsula to the best of his abilities.

"Public service is one of the greatest things we can do," he said.

The election will be held Nov. 2.

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