Rep. Ben Carpenter, center, participates in an Alaska State House candidate forum on Monday, Oct. 10, 2022, in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Rep. Ben Carpenter, center, participates in an Alaska State House candidate forum on Monday, Oct. 10, 2022, in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Alaska House candidates trade views at forum

The forum was hosted by The Peninsula Clarion and KDLL 91.9 FM in partnership with the Central Peninsula League of Women Voters

The Soldotna Public Library’s Community Room was reduced to standing-room only Monday night, when dozens of people attended an Alaska State House forum featuring the three candidates vying to represent the central peninsula in Juneau for the upcoming legislative session.

Monday’s forum was attended by incumbent Rep. Ron Gillham, R-Soldotna, and challenger Justin Ruffridge, also of Soldotna, as well as incumbent Rep. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski. Gillham and Ruffridge are running to represent State House District 7, which includes Kenai and Soldotna, while Carpenter is running to represent District 8, which includes Nikiski and Moose Pass.

The forum was the sixth of nine forums being hosted by The Peninsula Clarion and KDLL 91.9 FM in partnership with the Central Peninsula League of Women Voters. Over the course of roughly an hour, candidates fielded questions from moderators Sabine Poux, news director at KDLL, and Ashlyn O’Hara, government and education reporter at The Peninsula Clarion.

Gillham has represented Kenai and Soldotna in the Alaska Legislature since 2020. He replaced former Rep. Gary Knopp after Knopp died in a plane crash that summer. Justin Ruffridge currently sits on the Soldotna City Council and co-owns Soldotna Professional Pharmacy.

Carpenter has represented Nikiski and the northern Kenai Peninsula in the Legislature since 2018. Carpenter is a veteran and currently, with his wife Ameye, manages a commercial peony farm in Nikiski. His legislative district no longer contains Seward, which is now part of District 5 — a change resulting from redistricting after the 2020 U.S. Census.

Candidates diverged on multiple issues, including whether or not they support a constitutional convention. Alaska’s Constitution mandates that, every 10 years, Alaska voters decide whether or not to hold a constitutional convention. The question will appear alongside candidates on the state’s Nov. 8 ballot.

Proponents of the convention say decennial review of the document was the intention of the original drafters, while opponents say a convention would open the document to outside influence and potentially threaten existing freedoms for Alaskans. In addition to the affirmative vote needed for the convention to occur, any proposed changes to the Alaska Constitution would also need to be approved by voters, which proponents of a convention say is one of the safeguards against unwanted changes.

Gillham said that he originally did not support a convention, but that he is now in favor and would like to use the convention to “fix (Alaska’s) judicial system.”

“My main reason for the constitutional convention is to fix our judicial system,” Gillham said. “There was a lot of concern in the beginning that some things would get thrown out — maybe we lose our gun rights, we lose this right, we lose that right.”

Carpenter said he supports a constitutional convention as a way to “solve the PFD problem” by writing it into the Constitution. The Alaska Legislature, he said, is able to call a constitutional convention at any time, but that it requires a two-thirds vote in both the Alaska House and Senate. That’s compared to a convention, where constitutional amendments can be passed with a simple majority of delegates.

“If we want to come together and solve the PFD problem by putting it in the Constitution — that ‘a PFD shall be paid’ — then it has to happen through a constitutional convention,” Carpenter said.

Ruffridge said that he’s not afraid of having a constitutional convention and that, if one is called by voters, he will support legislative efforts to ensure a clear path for delegate selection. However, he said he will probably be voting “no” on Nov. 8 because of the unknown costs associated with the convention and a lack of consensus on what changes should be made to the document.

Candidates were generally in agreement that getting to a point where the PFD is no longer an annual debate by lawmakers is crucial to establishing a long-term fiscal plan for Alaska. Carpenter said he’s served on the House Finance Committee since joining the Legislature and was also a member of the Fiscal Policy Working Group, and that the PFD is a consistent roadblock.

“Issue number one is the PFD,” Carpenter said. “We have to get that problem solved. We have to get it solved. It is what is sucking the oxygen out of the room every time we come together to talk about money.”

Ruffridge called for a group of lawmakers who refuse to take up any legislation until Alaska’s fiscal plan and PFD issues are solved.

“I think that that will really set the tone for the session, and then let people know that it’s time for serious work,” Ruffridge said. “We’ve gone on long enough.”

Gillham, however, countered that there is “no political will to fix anything” and said that some lawmakers perpetuate the PFD issue so they can continue to use it as a way to halt other legislation. A constitutional convention, he said, is a way to get around political gridlock in Juneau.

“Until the PFD is off the table, we’re going to be in this same situation,” Gillham said. “How do we fix that? Change some of the players. Outnumber them. When you have this binding caucus that sticks together, they shut down everything no matter how good it is.”

All candidates said they would not support the implementation of new statewide taxes as a way to provide a more consistent state revenue stream, though they had differing justifications for their positions.

Ruffridge said he was persuaded by a recent article out of the Alaska policy working group, which found that Alaska’s small population would require high income tax rates to provide sufficient state income. Any new sales tax, he said, could negatively impact state municipalities who already collect their own sales tax.

“No new taxes in this state will fix the problem,” Ruffridge said. “As far as some of the other issues with revenue, I think we have a reliance on fossil fuels. We’re going to have to own that fact.”

Gillham called for the state to expand resource development, such as for precious metals, and for less government regulation on existing development projects.

“We have lots of business here,” Gillham said. “We have lots of oil. We’re never going to run out of oil and we’re going to need it forever. So I think we need to diversify. I think we need to maybe lower some of our taxes and bring some industry into the state, not raise taxes and keep them from coming in.”

Carpenter said he would not support any new taxes “without having a conversation about many other things.” The real problem, he said, is an increase in demand for state services that is untethered to the cost of providing those services. He said he doesn’t necessarily know what the answer is, but that he wants to be “part of the conversation.”

Candidates had similarly differing answers about what the Alaska Legislature should be doing to protect the state’s energy security moving forward. Gillham highlighted Alaska’s vast coastline and said he thinks more hydroelectric projects would be “great.” Carpenter emphasized the need for a pipeline from the North Slope to Southcentral — such as that proposed as part of the Alaska LNG project — to provide low cost natural gas to the area. Ruffridge agreed that such a pipeline would “be a great start.”

Answers varied when candidates were asked what bill they would sponsor if they could only sponsor one during the upcoming session. Carpenter said he’d sponsor a heartbeat bill or an abortion bill of some kind that would “protect life.” Ruffridge said that he’d sponsor a more effective spending cap on the Legislature. Gillham said he would pick up one of his previous bills that would maintain employment contracts for some employees that are contingent on the passage of the state budget.

Candidates were also asked about teacher retention and recruitment, where they think they fit in the broader legislative landscape and about times they’ve reached across the aisle to solve problems.

Election Day is Nov. 8. Voters will rank candidates for each seat. More information about the election can be found on the Alaska Division of Elections website at elections.alaska.gov.

The full candidate forum can be streamed on KDLL 91.9 FM’s website at kdll.org or on The Peninsula Clarion’s Facebook page.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.

Audience members listen to candidates speak during an Alaska State House candidate forum on Monday, Oct. 10, 2022, in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Audience members listen to candidates speak during an Alaska State House candidate forum on Monday, Oct. 10, 2022, in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

From left: Alaska State House candidates Ron Gillham, Ben Carpenter and Justin Ruffridge participate in a candidate forum on Monday, Oct. 10, 2022 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

From left: Alaska State House candidates Ron Gillham, Ben Carpenter and Justin Ruffridge participate in a candidate forum on Monday, Oct. 10, 2022 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

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