Chenault: I work hard for Alaska

Posted: Friday, October 29, 2010

There are days when Nikiski's Mike Chenault has to wonder to himself why he keeps going back down to Juneau every winter to represent District 34.

But when the 53 year-old, who has served in the state house since 2000, is asked why he's again throwing his name in the ring, he said, "I guess the reason I do it and continue to do it is because I think I'm making a difference in the state of Alaska."

Chenault was born in Hobbs, N.M., and moved to Nikiski with his family when he was 10.

"My dad was going to make a boatload of money and we were going to go home," he said. "Well, one year turned into about 43 now, and I don't suspect there's too many other places that I'd rather live on a full-time basis."

He went on to graduate from Kenai Central High School in 1975 and started working for his family's business, Nikiski-based Quick Construction Co., which he is now the vice president of.

The company, he said, provides services for oil and gas companies.

Chenault said his background in the industry gives him both a solid understanding of the needs of one of the state's most critical sectors and also has defined his basic work ethics.

"I've been accused of being a shill for the oil industry for many years, but I look at the people in my district and surrounding districts and a lot of those people are either in the oil field or they make their living off of some sector of the oil field," he said. "So if I didn't represent the people in the district I wouldn't be doing the job they elected me for."

Speaking to his personal experience in the field, he said, "It's not the high-end knowledge of how the corporation works, but it's the working man's knowledge of what do you have to do to get a job done."

His role in public service started small, and like many in this area, he said he was "roped into one position" and then graduated up the line.

He first public job was serving as president of the Nikiski Chamber of Commerce.

He said he was asked to run on the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education as well as the Nikiski Fire Service Area Board in 1999.

He was was elected to both, but only served for a year before he said he was asked to run for the state house in 2000, representing what was then District 9.

"I ran and I beat an incumbent," he said. "So it is possible to be an underdog and win a state race." His district was changed in 2002 to its current form as District 34, and in 2008, he became Speaker of the House.

That's a position he said he has every intention to seek again if reelected.

"I'm not bashful to say that I think I've done a reasonable job and that's where I'd like to be," he said. "I want to go down there and try to lead Alaska into the future.

Chenault said that as a representative he's remained available to his constituents.

I represent about 15,000 people in my district, and I think that my hope is that they feel like they can talk to me," he said. "There are very few other places in the U.S. where you will see the Speaker of the House out there washing somebody's car or doing things like that."

He said he's tried to remain the same down-to-earth, plainspoken type of person even as he's climbed up through the ranks.

"I guess that's my problem, I've never thought I was somebody," he said. "I wont try to out-word you, I'll try to give you as plain an answer as I can and you can take it for that."

He said, as well, that he has a good working relationship with his colleagues in both the House and Senate.

"I've been able to work across party lines," he said. "The House minority leader and I get along fine and I also have the ability to work with the dark side, as we call the senate."

He said he also knows how to reach compromises on legislation when necessary, but will fight adamantly if someone tries to take a bill in a direction he doesn't support.

He also said he works on in the background on department issues.

"My office deals with a lot of Office of Children's Services cases, whether it's the monetary side or the child side of issues, and trying to figure out how we can make that system work," he said. "Because I think it's broke, and through no fault of the state employees either."

He said that in his time as a legislator he's occasionally run across an issue that he doesn't know enough about. When that happens, he goes through several channels to learn more, including speaking with his fellow lawmakers, department employees, people in the communities and even lobbyists.

"Unfortunately, lobbyists get a bad name," he said. "While a lobbyist is going to fudge the story to his side, in my 10 years (in Juneau) I have had one lobbyist that I know of who lied to me."

He said he could only think of one vote he's cast which he wishes, in retrospect, he could recall, and that was an initial move of support on the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act.

"The original vote on it I wished I'd have voted no," he said. "I did vote no on the second vote that actually created AGIA, but that's probably the only vote that I wish I could pull it back and push the no button."

Campaigning this season for Chenault has included making visits to various community events and meetings as well as sending out mailers.

He said he plans to spend around $20,000.

According to the latest Alaska Political Office Commission Report, Chenault has received donations from a suite of different political action committees representing sea pilots, Realtors, BP Alaska employees, dentists and Tesoro, among others.

He has also received dozens of contributions from individuals, mostly from the Peninsula and Anchorage, but also some from other parts of the state and Outside.

He said door-to-door visits are tough to do in the spread out area he covers, and he also feels the practice is intrusive.

"For me I feel that I encroach on people's private lives when I go to their houses," he said. "If somebody invited me over I'd go in a heartbeat."

Chenault said he has three priorities he plans to focus on if reelected: Revisiting the state's oil tax structure, building a gas line from the North Slope and continuing to support educational opportunities.

He said the biggest thing on his plate though, is the gas line.

His bill passed last session, House Bill 369, combines the state's two different efforts to construct a line under one body.

Now he says, they'll be looking forward to learning what the cost of piping North Slope gas to tidewater will be in July.

"What those numbers will show I can't tell you," he said. "I've heard lots of estimates on the range, but until we know what the estimate on cost will be it's pretty hard for us to move forward."

In the meantime, he said he was expecting more information on the results of the two open seasons this January.

"We'll know hopefully what those opportunities are, and are they realistic, and if they are, what kind of time frame we'll be looking at," he said. "When we get the other project back in July it wouldn't surprise me if we have a special session dealing with it." He said, however, he would expect the state to move in the direction of constructing a smaller pipeline.

His HB 369 puts construction of a gas line on a warp speed time line, though.

"I don't think Alaska can wait another 10 or 15 years for another pipeline," he said.

He acknowledged, too, that whatever project the state supports, neither will bring in the same revenue the state will lose because of declining through put in the trans-Alaska pipeline.

He said however, that he believes that if developers had a way to export gas from the Slope it could help spark new exploration in the north.

"Anytime you're out there drilling you may be looking for gas or you may be looking for oil, but sometimes you find the other," he said. "So right now there is no exploration going on on the Slope." He also attributed the lack of exploration activity to the state's current oil tax regime.

"I think the biggest problems is the progressivity and the steep curve it climbs up when oil gets to a certain price," he said.

He was critical of the fact that the state is also rated as one of the most expensive places to do business.

"If those investment dollars aren't going to come to the state then our people aren't working and were not looking at putting more oil in the pipeline," he said.

While he the state's main source of revenue is high on his list of worries, he also said he wasn't concerned that TAPs will reach a point where it can no longer be profitably operated for several more years.

He acknowledged though that there has been strong criticism of the state's level of spending in light of this fact.

"As some may know but the majority don't know, because of the high oil prices and the tax system that we have, we've been able to take and put about $13 billion into the savings account," he said.

He went on to defend what the state has spent on capitol projects, saying that they have helped to keep the state afloat through the economic downturn.

He defended the state's operating budget, too.

"The needs of Alaskans are not going down, as a matter of fact they continue to climb," he said. "The operating budget is the same as the capitol budget. There's a lot of things in there I could probably go through and if I was king for the day make some adjustments to and lower that budget, but if there are no jobs in Alaska than somebody is going to have to take care of the people."

He said the lack of mineral exploration in the state concerns him, as well.

"There's a lot of projects out there that they could put thousands to work," he said, going on to explain that jobs can take people who require various services, provided by the state or federal governments, and give them independence.

As a legislator, Chenault has also been bullish on education.

He is recognized as one of the leaders in adjusting the cost differential that's used to determine how much money goes to different districts across the state.

He explained that for years the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District was "shortchanged" by legislation that dictated that funding.

"Kenai has, I believe, 48 schools, some that you can't drive to," he said, "And Kenai was getting just about the same amount of money that Anchorage was. It seemed to me that wasn't fair, so we embarked on a mission to bring equality to the cost differential."

He said the effects of that mission, which resulted in a change to the way the state funded different districts, have been "immense." He said however, that he still believes there needs to be more vocational education in schools, and that he doesn't believe that students today have the same opportunities that he did 35 years ago.

"When I was in high school we had a mechanic shop, welding classes, carpentry and drafting," he said. "What I see today is for kids who don't go to school and don't go to college, unless they have a dad or a family friend that they've been able to get some summer work from, you end up with a 22 year old who's just getting into the work program, where we used to do it when we were 17 and 18."

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



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