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House District 34 race hinges on fiscal plans

Posted: Tuesday, October 29, 2002

The race for House District 34 pits a one-term lawmaker determined to return to Juneau for another two years as a member of the majority Republican Party, and his Republican Moderate challenger, a man fresh from recent initiative battles he's both won and lost who says he's ready to sponsor radical changes in the way the state spends money.

Incumbent Republican Rep. Mike Chenault of Nikiski is seeking a second term. He's running largely on his record as a fiscal conservative and is calling for prudent resource development and more government accountability.

Republican Moderate James Price hopes the name he's made for himself during recent initiative drives against a private prison and sales taxes on food will be enough to garner the votes necessary to unseat Chenault.

House District 34 covers a sizable portion of the central and northern parts of the Kenai Peninsula, stretching from Hope in the north to Anchor Point and Nikolaevsk in the south, while wrapping around House District 33, which includes Kenai and Soldotna.

If elected, Price said he'd advocate serious changes in the state's capital budget to limit access to its funds. He has a list of projects in the current capital-spending plan he doesn't think ought to have been funded.

"There are projects that are just wasteful spending," he said.

Included in his list is the $400,000 appropriated for a feasibility study and design of a community center in Nikiski, a project that may ultimately cost $2.5 million.

"That's just more expense the local property owners and taxpayers will have to support," he said.

Other wasteful projects cited by Price included $4.5 million for a Kodiak launch complex, $11,550 for lights at a Fairbanks theme park, $101,000 for construction of an animal shelter in Homer and $108,000 for restrooms in Ketchikan.

"The list goes on and on," he said.

Chenault sees things differently.

"I can see where we could save some money there, no doubt," he said. "But these are issues my constituents have brought to me and asked if funding was available that they would like to see these projects. The $400,000 for the community center is a prime example. They came to us and asked to put that on the capital projects list. We were fortunate, in my opinion, to be able to fund a portion of that project."

Chenault said people may point to the capital budget and call it waste, but many projects are important, even vital to the areas that need them.

"If we are a billion dollars in debt, what are we doing spending this money? I don't have a pat answer for that," Chenault said. "But these capital projects also help the economy."

Chenault said he believes the state government must be responsive to the needs of local governments and communities. That often means putting state dollars where they can do real good. The capital budget accomplishes that goal with projects for roads, utilities and more, he said.

Price said he'd likely find cuts in state departments, too, but before anyone can do that, Alaska needs a long-range fiscal plan.

"In order to find real cuts, there has to be a comprehensive study done," he said. "I've tried to understand the state's annual report. It's so convoluted it's virtually impossible to understand where much of our money is going. I would zero-base a budget on anything that is not mandated by the Alaska Constitu-tion and force departments to justify their expenses."

Chenault said he, too, would be looking for efficiencies in state departments and programs.

"All departments need to be looked at," he said. "Can you save a billion dollars? No. But you can make more efficient use of state dollars if you put some effort into it."

When it comes to the other side of the cost-of-government equation -- raising revenues -- Chenault and Price tend toward agreement.

Neither supports income or sales taxes before more efforts are made to cut government spending and find efficiencies. Likewise, neither wants to touch the Alaska Permanent Fund.

Chenault said he would make education a major focus in the next Legislature. The state's foundation funding formula by which it allots dollars to school districts around the state is unfair to the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. The formula treats the district as if it were entirely in a major municipality when, in fact, it has a mix of urban and rural schools.

Price agrees education funding should be revamped, but for him it's a broader issue. Lawmakers have skewed priorities, he said. Edu-cation, public safety and transportation are the only mandated responsibilities of state government. Everything else will have to be fully justified, he said.

Price said the government could do more to ensure that Alaskans get a fair share of those high-paying resource development jobs. He also said he thinks "special interests lobbyists are exerting an extreme amount of pressure on government to give away the resources that fund our government."

He said he believes Republican Moderate Party Chair Ray Metcalfe has demonstrated that oil companies are not paying fair royalties.

"I'm not for new taxation on the oil industry," Chenault said. "That's the only industry in our state that is paying its way. It is an issue we might want to look at."

Chenault said Alaska has a local-hire policy that it tries to have worked into state contracts. But when Alaskans lack the necessary skills, companies have to look elsewhere, he said.

Price said he never would have voted to close the state primary, nor would he support a private prison anywhere in the state, two things his opponent did.

Chenault has said he believed at the time closing the primary as the Republican-led Legislature did earlier this year was the unavoidable result of a U.S. Supreme Court decision. He has said, however, that now he thinks the Legislature may have gone further than was required by the high court decision.

As for the prison issue, Chenault said the Kenai Peninsula Borough brought the idea to him and the Legislature, pitching it as an economic development project.

"I thought, 'Why not?'" he said.

Ultimately, he added, the public spoke its mind on the issue and the prison project for the borough died.



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