2 candidates vie for District O Senate seat

Republicans will get to choose the senator who represents the central Kenai Peninsula in the Alaska Legislature for the next six years.

With less than a month to go before the primary election, only two people have registered for the race for the senate seat in District O — incumbent Sen. Peter Micciche and challenge Ron Gillham of Soldotna, both Republicans. Because they are both registered in the primary and no independents or Democrats are registered, the results of the primary will very likely decide the race.

The two gave their positions on a number of issues at a joint luncheon of the Kenai and Soldotna chambers of commerce Wednesday in Soldotna. On some, they agree — both oppose raising taxes to balance the budget, and neither will support Ballot Measure 1, which would rewrite the state’s fish habitat permitting laws if voters pass it this fall. On others, they don’t quite match up, but both touted their dedication to keeping the state within its budget and not going into debt.

Micciche, the incumbent, was elected in 2013 and currently serves as the Senate Majority Leader and the Senate Finance Committee vice-chairman, as well as on a number of other committees. He pointed to his experience as mayor of Soldotna and in the Senate in bringing people together to solve problems as credentials for reelection.

“I’ve led the Senate Majority as the only fully functioning legislative body in Juneau right now,” he said. “We stopped the permanent negative impacts on Alaskans and Alaska business. I wrote many pieces of the oil tax code that reawakened the North Slope in NPRA and ANWR. I focused on education, public safety, senior veteran and disability services. We have a lot more to do.”

Gillham, who works in oilfield support on the North Slope and has lived on the Kenai Peninsula for 33 years, said he chose to run because someone pointed out “he didn’t have anything to lose” and he was concerned about the state government’s tapping of the Permanent Fund earnings to pay for government, thus reducing the Permanent Fund Dividend checks. Without experience in government, he said he was still researching issues but would bring his experience running small businesses to work on balancing the state’s budget.

“As far as putting budgets together, I know that you can only work with the money you have,” he said. “I will not max out our credit cart. I can only spend the amount of money that I have. When I start seeing money spent that doesn’t belong to you, that’s not the way to go.”

Both emphasized the need for oil development to pay for Alaska’s government, voicing support for hydrocarbon exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Both voiced skepticism about the payoff value of the proposed Alaska LNG Project — Gillham because he said he wasn’t sure if the pipeline would work with dependence on China as a customer, Micciche because he said he declined to support receipt authority for the project in this year’s budget because the finances may not pencil out for years for Alaska, though the Senate is “largely supportive of the LNG Project.”

“The administration simply has no idea what exposure there is to the state on the deductions that companies can take that invest in the pipeline,” he said. “…The reality is that we have to understand what those deductions are going to cost because if this project kicks off, we could have zero revenue for the first five or six years.”

Neither supported any broad-based tax increase to supplement state revenue. Gillham said he believes the state has enough revenue at present but that it is being “mismanaged.” He said he would look to cutting expenditures like state support for health care provider Planned Parenthood and move the Legislature to Anchorage, while leaving the capitol itself in Juneau.

Micciche said he and the Senate Majority have opposed tax increases because they saw the administration’s proposals as “a permanent fix to a temporary problem.” The price of oil has risen significantly from its low in January 2016 and helped to balance out state revenue, but there are still cuts to be made. Micciche said his target is mostly set on the state Medicaid program.

“We simply have to manage eligibility and utilization of Medicaid, and we have to stop paying twice the highest average in the country for every procedure,” he said. “There’s a lot that we can cut.”

While Micciche said he would continue to lead the Senate Majority because being part of a minority blocks effective action, Gillham said he would opt not to caucus with the main group of senators in the Legislature. He said he sees the concentration of power in the majority as the leadership being in too few hands.

“I am not a follower, never have been — I just cannot go in and because a small group of people say, ‘You’re going to do this or we’re going to chastise you and your constituents are going to lose out,’ that’s not the way it works,” he said. “I do not agree with the binding caucus.”

So far, Gillham’s campaign has raised $2,800 from seven donors, all private individuals. Micciche’s has raised $17,885, including donations from several senators, the Alaska Republican Party and multiple political action committees, including the Alaska Mining PAC.

Reach Elizabeth Earl ateearl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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