Solving budget problems marks difference in Senate candidates

Posted: Wednesday, October 30, 2002

With the withdrawal of Pat Hawkins, the Democratic Party hopeful, the race for Senate District Q has become, for all intents and purposes, a two-candidate contest.

A third candidate -- Green Party of Alaska nominee Thomas Stroman -- is on the ballot, but he has not been actively campaigning.

Republican Sen. Jerry Ward held a comfortable lead over Republican Moderate candidate Tom Wagoner and Hawkins following the August primary, but Hawkins' withdrawal may change those numbers as the campaign rolls into the final few days.

Ward is campaigning on his record of fiscal conservatism and a platform of no taxes and no use of the Alaska Permanent Fund for funding state government.

Wagoner lays claim to the fiscal-conservative label as well and also opposes taxes and tapping the permanent fund. It is their varying approaches to solving the state's fiscal problems and differences of opinion over Ward's residency that lie at the heart of the race for the Senate district that includes House Districts 33 and 34.

Senate District Q stretches from Hope to Anchor Point and east to the Russian River and includes some 32,875 residents, roughly two-thirds of the Kenai Peninsula Borough's population.

Campaigning aggressively, Wagoner has crisscrossed the district in an effort to attract what he says are the estimated 15 percent of voters who remain undecided. Going door to door, he said he keeps hearing the same concerns, the same issues.

"They're worried about balancing the budget and maintaining state services," he said.

The controversial state primary in August is still fresh on their minds, Wagoner said.

"One guy asked me if he would have to pick up a Republican or a Democratic ballot," he said.

Wagoner said he thinks most people have it straight by now that the separated ballots were a condition of the primary, not the general election. But if one person is still confused, there could be many others, he said.

"I am a Republican," he said. "But people who run the party want to have their cake and eat it, too. They wanted the undecided and nonpartisan voters to vote in their primary. They put a lot of money into recruiting those groups to join, or at a minimum, to take the Republican ballot."

The issue of Ward's residency and whether his political loyalties are with the peninsula or Anchor-age also is a topic among voters, Wagoner said.

"They joke a lot that Jerry Ward thinks he is a resident," Wagoner said.

Ward has met Alaska Division of Elections requirements necessary to establish residency. He has said he has a long history of involvement with the peninsula and that he hopes to continue representing the district. What he is hearing from voters, he said, is the same thing he's been advocating -- resource development.

"People would like to have smaller government. They do not want an income tax and they do not want to use the permanent fund to fund government," Ward said. "They want resource development. They don't want liberals to manage a crash of our economy by overspending. They want new revenues through resource development."

Ward said resource-development jobs are becoming scarcer in the fishing, mining and petroleum industries. There are fewer of those high-paying jobs for young Alaskans.

"The vast majority believes resource development is the only logical answer," Ward said.

He said he has only heard the issue of the primary brought up twice since the August election -- once by a reporter and once by a candidate.

"I'm not hearing it as an issue out on the campaign," he said.

As to what Alaska can do about the primary situation, Ward said the next governor should initiate court action to remove Alaska from the confines of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the California case.

"It's up to the administration to challenge that," he said.

On education funding, Ward said he would reintroduce a measure he sponsored in the last Legislature to create an education endowment funded from the proceeds of 5 million acres of state-owned land. The state, he said, owns more than 100 million acres. He has been an advocate of putting that land into private hands for development.

"It is time we develop our natural resources in order to adequately fund public education," he said. "Education has been shortchanged for a decade. With a land endowment, I would assume the budget for education would be increased, but that would be up to the land endowment board."

Wagoner said the Kenai Peninsula Borough and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough have similar school districts, but the latter gets higher funding through the state's foundation formula.

"Why should that be?" Wagoner said. "Children should be funded on a per-capita basis, and then a multiplier should be used for school size and another for location. That's a little bit of an over-simplification, but not by much. Those three things should take care of funding for schools. The bottom line is every child should have access to an equal educational opportunity."

Wagoner said at least three things must be done to cut the cost of state government.

First, he said he would look for duplication of services and eliminate them where possible.

"The second place I'd look is the Department of Community and Economic Development. What have they really accomplished over the last 10 years? They've spent a lot of money on studies and consultants, but I'm not sure where they've affected the growth of the private sector."

Third, Wagoner said he would compare salaried positions in the Alaska government with those of other states with small populations and large geographic areas, such as Wyoming, Idaho and New Mexico.

"What do we really need, administration wise, to administer a department or division?" he said.

Wagoner also said he'd have experts go back 25 years and look at the programs that have been added since the oil began flowing in the pipeline to see which are effective and which may have outlived their usefulness.

Ward had his own priorities for cost savings.

"First, I would stop rehiring people when positions became vacant," he said. "I would reassign those duties to other positions wherever possible."

Ward said he would fund the constitutionally mandated programs of education, public safety and transportation, the central responsibilities of state government. Every-thing else would be on the table and subject to cutting.

"That would include power-cost equalization, the science and technology fund and public radio. All those things are not mandated," he said.

Ward said he would sell Alaska Seafood International, Matanuska Maid Dairy and Mount McKinley Meat and Sausage.

Selling the businesses involves a bit more than a simple go-ahead from the Legislature, however, and the proceeds wouldn't necessarily translate into general fund savings, according to officials with the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority and Matanuska Maid.

Asked if there were areas in the budget where more funding was needed, both Ward and Wagoner agreed education deserved better.

Ward said his plan for an education endowment would accomplish that. Other than that, Ward said there were no parts of the budget that should get more funding.

Wagoner said more money should go into fixing roads. He also said the state highway maintenance shop in Ninilchik should never have been closed. It will cost more for maintenance crews to come from Soldotna and Homer. He said he worries for the safety of drivers in general and school children on buses in particular.

"This business of them closing down the Ninilchik maintenance station parallels the criminal," he said. "If kids get hurt, there will be heck to pay with the state."

While the state government struggles with budget shortfalls and political debate revolves around the different approaches to a solution, local municipalities and rural communities have been asked to do more for themselves. The candidates spoke about what local voters should expect from the state government.

"It is reasonable to expect the government to do those things it should do and do them well and leave as much tax dollars in the pockets of the citizens of Alaska and not spend it on bureaucracy," Ward said. "Alaska should encourage resource development in oil, gas, timber, mining and fishing -- all renewable and nonrenewable resources. The state should do away with burdensome regulations."

Wagoner said he'd like to see the state offer the oil industry an incentive to drill for small pockets of oil in Cook Inlet, letting them save on the cost of drilling.

"If we don't do something, those pockets of oil will never be developed," he said.

He also said he'd revisit the idea of encouraging companies in which the state's permanent fund holds stock to invest in Alaska either directly or through contracts.

Wagoner said the state should help the tourist industry by promoting Alaska. He said cruise lines should be taxed. The ports they use were built by the state, he said, not just the communities in which they sit. Thus, the entire state should reap some benefit.

Wagoner's campaign got a boost over the weekend when Democrat Pat Hawkins dropped out of the race and tossed his support to Wagoner.

"Hawkins supporters have been asking me for signs and to put up signs," he said. "I think it is a big push."

Ward said he would continue "trying hard to make sure people know what I'm doing."



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