Candidates vying for seats representing parts of the lower Kenai Peninsula say education, retirement debt, a gas pipeline and ethics are among the big issues lawmakers will be discussing when the new legislative session begins in January.
On Nov. 7, voters there will decide who sits in the Senate District R and House District 35 seats currently held by incumbents Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, and Paul Seaton, R-Homer.
Stevens is the current Senate Majority Leader and has served in the Legislature since 2000. He faces a challenge from Democratic Party nominee Charles Davidson, a resident of Kodiak and a Kodiak City Council member for the past 13 years. The two will vie for District R’s four-year term.
Seaton has served in that body since 2003. He is running for re-election to a two-year seat against Seward resident Anthony Sieminski. However, the recent death of his father has led Sieminski to end his campaign in order to address family matters. His name will likely appear on the ballot, however, as his decision to drop out may have come too late to alter it.
Senate District R
Davidson has been a member of the Kodiak City Council for 13 years. He has also been a member of the National League of Cities’ steering committee for transportation and infrastructure. He is a longshoreman by trade and has lived on Kodiak almost 36 years.
He said that, for him, the most critical issue is revamping the way education if funded in Alaska, especially the urban-rural divide that many believe (including the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District) has shortchanged rural districts. Davidson noted that the Senate has ignored recommendations for fixing the state’s Foundation Formula contained in a University of Alaska Institute of Social and Economic Research report.
“There has got to be a fairer funding mechanism,” Davidson said, “especially in the Bush where costs are higher.”
Davidson also said he does not like the new “tier 4” pension program for state employees and teachers and believes the Legislature should revisit the issue. He fears it could lead qualified professionals to seek employment elsewhere.
“I don’t think smart people go where there are not smart benefits,” he said. “It’s a disadvantageous system.”
Davidson supports bringing back revenue sharing for communities.
“That’s the standard within the country,” he said. “We know what the ramifications were when it was done away with.”
He also wants the Senate to encourage the next governor to do all he or she could to promote fairness in the fisheries rationalization program in the Gulf of Alaska. He said he would propose putting a hold on any further rationalization efforts until all parties involved have been adequately compensated.
“People are desperate. It created social friction within families when incomes came down,” he said. “It’s not enough just to be aware of the problem.”
The dilemma attached to the debt to public employee and teacher retirement programs (PERS/TRS) must be resolved, Davidson said.
Finally, Davidson said he has heard from voters a growing concern about ethics in government.
“They want transparency in government,” he said, “not smoke-filled back rooms.”
He said he was not opposed to the use of caucuses, but believes they have been overused in the past few Legislatures.
Sen. Gary Stevens:
Stevens is a retired University of Alaska professor who has previously served as mayor of Kodiak Island Borough, mayor of the city of Kodiak, and as president of the Kodiak School Board. He was a member of the Kodiak Island Borough Assembly, and was a member of the Alaska Municipal League Board of Directors, among other posts.
He taught at the University of Alaska for 25 years, and for five years was general manager of Northern Processors.
Stevens was elected to the Alaska House in 2000 and 2002, but was appointed to fill a vacated Senate seat in 2003. He was elected to the Senate in his own right in 2004 and has served as Majority Leaders since 2005. He is seeking a second full four-year term in that body.
“Two issues are crucial and I think doable,” Sen. Stevens said of the upcoming 25th Legislature’s first session. “We should finish the gas pipeline contract and make major changes to the education funding formula.”
Not only would gas moving to market supply needed revenue, but exploration for gas is likely to find oil, which experts say could keep the TransAlaska Oil Pipeline in operation for 20 more years, Stevens said. It is the gap between the decline of existing oil fields and the advent of gas production that has him concerned, he said.
“How do we fund government if there is a gap?” he said. “We need to move ahead and find a fair contract. That’s crucial.”
“The next step is to move ahead with a gas line and make sure it’s equitable,” he said.
What is not fair would be asking producers to invest $25 billion in a pipeline without some guarantees of a stable tax regime. Murkowski has proposed 35 years. Stevens said 15 seemed fairer to the state.
“So the length of a guarantee is a big question,” he said.
A collateral issue, he said, would be Proposition 2, the natural gas production tax and resource credit measure that supporters say would encourage pipeline construction, and which opponents argue would drive the cost of a pipeline project beyond the will and means of producers.
Stevens said that tax could add $1 billion a year to the cost of a pipeline by taxing companies until construction begins. Stevens acknowledged that the proposal includes provisions for tax credits once that happens through which companies could recoup their investments, but he said the tax could be detrimental to a pipeline project.
On education, Stevens would like to see creation of a Senate standing committee on education. He said if it were up to him, he would charge such a committee with rewriting the Foundation Formula and the areas cost-differential factor used by the state to fund local school districts.
“We have got to figure that out,” he said. “Many lawmakers worry about opening the foundation formula issue up again because it is so hard to find a point of equity. But things are so out of whack that we need to find an equitable formula.”
House District 35
Rep. Paul Seaton:
Seaton is a commercial fisherman and has lived in his district since 1975, first in Seward, later in Anchor Point and currently in Kachemak City.
In an interview, Rep. Seaton outlined some of the major issues expected to occupy much of lawmakers’ time next session.
“Hopefully, we’ll be looking at a long-range solution to problems instead of these one-time things,” he said, referring mostly to the state’s existing and growing liability to state employee and teacher retirement programs.
During the past few years, the Legislature has provided funding to municipalities to help them pay for annual 5 percent increases in their Public Employee and Teacher retirement obligations (PERS/TRS). The existing debt is more than $7 billion at this point and the total unfunded liability will be $15 billion over 25 years, he said.
Seaton said he hoped lawmakers come to Juneau “with a sense of urgency” to find a long-term solution.
The state’s Foundation Formula and that program’s cost-differential factor, by which the state provides funds to local school districts, are out of whack and in need of a rewrite, Seaton said. Fixing that problem likely will occupy a lot of time.
“That’s going to be a huge one,” he noted.
The future of a natural gas pipeline will also be on the table. Seaton said it would not surprise him if Gov. Frank Murkowski signs a pipeline deal before the November election in order to thwart Proposition 2. Seaton said he is neither a supporter nor an opponent of Proposition 2.
“It’s not the doom and gloom people think it is,” he said.
Next year may be a good year to slow down adding new capital projects to the budget, Seaton said. Over the past few years a lot of the backlog of projects have been funded. Adding more now might simply force the state to seek contractors from Outside since many of Alaska’s companies are already occupied with existing projects.
Seaton also said he hopes voters reject the proposed 90-day session.
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