Waisanen: Everybody should have a choice

Posted: Thursday, October 28, 2010

Richard "Dick" Waisanen is making his second run at District 33 against Republican incumbent, Kurt Olson.

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Submitted Photo
Richard "Dick" Waisanen

The 65-year-old grew up in Minnesota and has lived in Alaska with his wife, Sharon, of 44 years, since 1969.

With a degree in elementary education, and after teaching in Minnesota for a couple of years, Waisanen and his wife moved to Juneau to take advantage of the opportunities starting to bloom in the north.

"It just took two years to be bitten by the Alaskan bug and we've been here ever since," Waisanen said.

Since his arrival, the Soldotna resident, who also has a master's degree in guidance and counseling, has lived across much of the state, working as a teacher and a guidance counselor.

His two children have grown up and moved Outside, and Waisanens are now grandparents.

That's left Waisanen and his wife time to peruse other passions.

He said they ran a bed and breakfast for several years, but now his main activities include refereeing youth hockey and training future refs.

Waisanen said he chose to run in this race again, following his unsuccessful 2008 bid, because of his belief in choice.

"We do live in a democracy and everybody should have a choice when they go to the ballot box," he said. "No one else wanted to step up to the plate and take on Kurt Olson and I felt that I would do that so I could get some issues on the table."

When speaking of his credentials, Waisanen pointed to his experience as an educator, which exposed him to negotiations, union committees and the school board.

He also noted his experience a hockey referee and said he is involved in the administrative board of the Methodist church.

"It's small potatoes compared to other things but yet it does give you the experience when you get into those situations and have to deal with conflicts," he said.

Waisanen said that the skills he developed as a counselor and a teacher will make him a good listener with an open ear to constituent concerns.

He also said a good staff will make the difference between an informed and uninformed legislator.

"As a legislator, if you have a good staff you can have the staff dig up a lot of background," he said. "As a legislator, you're not the person who's going to have all those answers and if you don't have somebody supplying you with that information, it's not going to work." He said he's not a hardliner for the Democratic Party either, and would work with others to get legislation through.

"I think if you get an idea that you want to push through the Legislature you need to sell the people in the Legislature on the merits of that idea," he said. "If you can't sell the people in the Legislature, it's probably not a good idea."

Waisanen said he's operated this year's campaign on a "shoe string budget," asking supporters to donate only in small amounts.

"The reason I've asked for smaller amounts is I don't foresee that I have a real chance of winning this race, so I don't want people to give me their money when it could be better used by Ethan Berkowitz and Scott McAdams," he said.

His humility has resulted in some larger than expected donations, but he said that he would keep spending to a minimum, and was reusing some of his campaign signs and unused envelopes from 2008.

He expected to spend a little more than $6,000 on the election.

The lion's share of that money is coming from Waisanen's personal finances, according to his most recent Alaska Public Office Commission reports.

Most of his donations have indeed come from individuals in amounts of $100 or less, with the largest being a $1,000 donation from the Alaska Public Employees Association.

Waisanen has also been endorsed by the National Education Association.

Campaigning this season for Waisanen has included sending out a mailer, attending a debate forum hosted by KAKM public television channel 7 and visiting voters door-to-door.

While this has been a boisterous election season in many races, Waisanen said most of his interactions with voters have been positive.

"Most of the time they're happy to see me come to their door," he said, "It gives people a chance to put a face to the name and a chance to ask questions."

He said he's hearing a lot of concern about the economy and job growth on the Peninsula.

"I look around the area and say, 'What job growth have we created other than Walmart?'" he said. "We've lost Agrium, which were high paying jobs, and we get something that's low paying. I don't see the jobs there."

He said the only thing that's created jobs in the state in the past year has been the federal stimulus funds allocated by Congress earlier this year.

"The stimulus plan has helped our country stay afloat," he said.

While Waisanen said he knows he's up against a real challenge in running against a Republican incumbent, he's not shy on the issues.

His list of concerns includes the influence of lobbyists in Juneau, the financial woes facing the state's retirement system, intentional bill stalling by legislators and the future of state funding.

When it comes to lobbyists, Waisanen's oppinion is a simple one.

"We need to change the law so a lobbyists can't pay for so much as a cup of coffee," he said.

In his view that would force lobbyists to sell their ideas solely on merits, and give the average citizen an equal toe hold with lawmakers.

He's also concerned that the state's not saving money, but, in fact, is likely to start losing money through the current retirement system.

He cited a report by the Alaska Public Pension Coalition issued last winter that criticized the state's decision to go to a defined contributions system.

"Right now what's going to happen is each year there are less and less people paying into the defined benefit program that's still in effect," he said "And the state, boroughs and school districts will have to come up with more money for all those people that are already retired."

He dismissed that the problem would go away, and said it's something that will be an issue for a long time.

He also criticized the fact that the report was brought to the House Labor Committee and that his opponent would not address the issue there.

"We hope to change that by not having him there," Waisanen said.

He also said it irks him that a bill can die in committee if allowed.

He calls for the establishment of a timetable under which a committee must act on a piece of legislation or else it will automatically be advanced.

Waisanen said he also sees the need for a long-range fiscal plan for the state.

Acknowledging that the state's main source of revenue, oil, won't be around forever, he said a road map could help guide state officials on how to appropriately meet the state's development needs while balancing its checkbook.

"Infrastructure in the state has been let go," he said, pointing specifically to the Sterling Highway from Soldotna to Homer as safety hazard due to its lack of passing lanes. "There are a lot of things that need to be done in the state and they need to be prioritized."

On the revenue side, he said the state would have to look at several different options.

One might be revisiting royalties the state gets from mineral extraction.

While he said it might be many years away, he pointed to the Permanent Fund, noting that it was set aside years ago as a rainy day account to help the state when oil revenues did eventually dwindle.

"At the time the Permanent Fund was established they figured the oil would run out before the year 2000 and we'd have to be dipping into it," he said. "Nobody wants to see us dip into the fund, we'd like to see it keep growing."

He's also not opposed to revisiting the state's oil and gas tax structure.

He said that he initially felt that the 3-year-old Alaska's Clear and Equitable Share tax was working, however, following a recent conversation with gubernatorial candidate, Ethan Berkowitz, his opinion has changed.

"The thing that gets me is that both BP and Exxon are negotiating with Iraq, and they're going to produce their oil and they're going to get $2 a barrel," Waisanen said. "Here in Alaska they're still profiting over $20 a barrel after taking away the tax."

Waisanen is perhaps a little more subdued on the development of a gas pipeline from the North Slope compared to other candidates.

"The AGIA plan is not going to work if gas prices in the Lower 48 stay as they are," he said.

He acknowledged that Southcentral is in need of gas in the near future, but pointed to other opportunities, including the establishment of a gas storage facility and increased production out of the inlet, before construction of a bullet line begins.

Dante Petri can be reached at dante.petri@peninsulaclarion.com.

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