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Olson: We don't have to spend everything

Posted: Thursday, October 28, 2010

Kurt Olson still has projects left to work on in Juneau, and he's hoping voters in District 33 will send him south again for another two-year term.

Photo By M. Scott Moon
Photo By M. Scott Moon
Kurt Olson

The 62-year-old from Soldotna will be running for his fourth term in the State House of Representatives.

Olson moved to Alaska with his wife, Barbara, in 1977. Like many young couples, they were childless at the time and seeking opportunity and adventure in the north. They never left.

After working in Anchorage for an adjusting company handling claims, they moved to Kenai in 1982, where Olson opened an insurance agency.

Before moving north, Olson earned a degree in political science from California State University following four years of service in the U.S. Air Force.

Olson laughs now about his degree, saying that his younger self probably didn't envision that he'd one day be using that degree.

Olson's political career dates back to the mid 1990s, and follows a series of stepping stones that started on the Central Emergency Services Advisory Board, and hopped upward, eventually leading him to chair that body, serve on the Soldotna City Council and later work as a staff member for former Sen. John Torgerson, R-Kasilof, and later Sen. Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai.

Olson said he still remembers his days with the CES board as some of the best.

"It was on a grassroots level, our involvement was setting the budget, looking at equipment purchases and personnel issues," he said. "I knew everybody on a first name basis. It was an extremely close knit organization." Olson laughed lightheartedly when asked about his connection with constituents, and said if he does something unpopular, he'll hear about it from the entire district.

He said this campaign season he's been doing some door-to-door visits, along with attending city council, borough assembly and school district meetings, among others.

While he said the latter doesn't necessarily constitute campaigning, it's something he tries to do to keep the pulse of the communities he represents.

Another thing Olson said he likes to do is drive through the neighborhoods he serves and keep an eye on how many homes with for sale signs he sees.

"I hesitate to use the word pleased, but it wasn't as bad as I was expecting when I got home this session, I was expecting to see more signs," he said. "Now having said that, I still see too many signs." He said in his conversations with voters this season, he's heard a lot of concern about jobs, developing a natural gas line and questions about Southcentral's own gas future.

He said he's also heard concerns about the future of tourism on the Peninsula. He doesn't think the area can sustain another tough year.

So far this season he said he's kept his campaign spending down compared to previous elections, in large part because he didn't face a challenger in the primary.

He said he's expecting to spend somewhere in the neighborhood of $25,000 to $30,000 on this election.

His most recent donations listed by the Alaska Public Offices Commission have run the gamut in amounts and origins.

Individual donations have ranged from $25 to $500 and come from residents of both the central Peninsula as well as some from Anchorage.

Olson has also received support from a number of political action committees that have ranged from $250 to $1,000 and includes groups like the Alaska Realtors, Tesoro Alaska, insurance interests, Alaska Doctors of Optometry and the Associated General Contractors, among others.

Olson has focused his career in the House on bills that he admits often don't attract a lot of attention.

"The bills that I do are bills that would put most people to sleep," he said.

They're often technical and involve the idiosyncrasies of running a large and complex organization like the state, but he argues that they're also issues that someone needs to address.

"The last session I ended up rewriting the universal commercial codes. They hadn't been touched for years," He said. "It brought Alaska into the computer age, but it was 50 pages of the perfect cure for insomnia." Similarly he's tackled Certified Public Accountant statutes and Regulatory Commission of Alaska timetables, bills he said that received virtually no attention in their day but helped to streamline state processes.

One he hopes to focus on for this coming session if reelected will be workers compensation.

This was an issue Olson said he tried to address last session, but ultimately the bill did not go in the direction he wanted it to.

"Having reasonable rates is important to every employer in the state, and our rates are among the highest in the country," he said. "That impacts goods, services and everything we're doing."

While some of Olson's former political science professors might have described Olson as a technocrat, that doesn't mean Olson has his head in the sand when it comes to the much louder issues facing the state.

Monetizing the state's natural gas resources and redressing the oil and gas tax structure top the list for what Olson sees as the biggest issues facing the state in the dawning decade.

When it comes to the development of a gas line from the North Slope, Olson said the state has multiple options, but essentially one very big problem.

"Our problem right now is we're awash in gas in the Lower 48," he said. "So if we're going to go ahead with the pipeline it's going to have to pencil out."

He said that developers are looking decades out at these types of investments and right now the Slope is just not looking that attractive to most companies when it comes to natural gas.

"The problem is, the oil companies are looking out much further than we do," he said, "They're looking out 100 years at what assets they'll develop on what time frame."

That leaves the state with a few options, he said.

One he is not in favor of is subsidizing a line.

"It's going to have to make sense economically before we do it, so the questions is, what will make it economical, how can we do it?" he said.

He also said Cook Inlet is in good shape with natural gas for the near future.

"Right now Cook Inlet does not have a shortage for the foreseeable future," he said, citing gas storage options, new drilling and an extension of the ConocoPhillips and Marathon Oil Co. liquid natural gas export license.

To get gas off of the Slope, he said the state needs a better business climate.

That will start with having a different tax structure, he said.

"One of the concerns of the companies is that once they make the investment the tax regime changes, and we've seen four or five changes in the last six years," he said. "Our credibility from that is a bit lacking."

Second, he said the state needs a skilled workforce so workers don't need to be brought up from Outside, as was the case 40 years ago.

Lastly, he called for improved infrastructure on the North Slope.

"We have to rebuild the roads up there," he said. "We need an economic climate that wants them to do business in Alaska." The current lack of exploration activity and dwindling through put flowing through the trans-Alaska Pipeline should have the entire state concerned too, he said.

"I'm real pleased with Gov. (Sean) Parnell's announcements that (Alaska's Clear and Equitable Share tax) needed to be revisited," he said. "As one of the 14 people who voted against it, it makes me feel like I made the right decision."

Olson said the main thing the state needs to look at is the "progressivity" of the tax, which means that the higher the price of oil is, the steeper the tax is.

"When we first put it out we had it capped much lower and had protection on the downside," he said. "I think right now the only thing Parnell is going to tackle is the upper limit."

Olson acknowledged that despite the state's future revenue woes, it still has real needs, one of the biggest is improving life in the Bush and providing services there.

He said he has real concerns the state will also be seeing dollars for programs started by the federal government start drying up, leaving the state and local governments accountable for making up the difference.

One thing he said we would be looking for this term were "efficiencies," targeting in particular the Department of Transportation and how the state provides different social service.

He noted as well that he's seen the impact of a swinging price for a barrel of oil on the state's budget.

"We've been blessed, or maybe even cursed by the fact that it's been high for a long time," he said. "We don't have to spend everything.

"For the last few years we've been putting aside $500 million, we've been taking another $500 million to backfill the unfunded liability for the PERS and TERS." Additionally Olson said he saw the need for "some tweaking" on natural gas storage and a tax break bill passed last session that offers incentives for drilling in Cook Inlet. He also said he hoped to address energy issues in the Interior and the villages and look further at the long term development of the state's alternative energy supplies.

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



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