District 30 candidates debate budget, energy

Two and a half weeks before Election Day, the four candidates for the District 30 seat in the Alaska House of Representatives debated together for the first time.

In a forum hosted by the League of Women Voters, Republican candidate Gary Knopp, Democratic candidate Shauna Thornton, Constitution Party candidate J.R. Myers and nonpartisan candidate Daniel Lynch presented their ideas and answered questions from the public Thursday night in the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly Chambers in Soldotna. In the most contested Legislature race in the state, voters will choose the candidate to replace current representative Kurt Olson (R-Soldotna), who announced earlier this year his intention not to run for reelection.

Before a small crowd, the candidates debated topics ranging from alternative energy and budget matters to whether they would be willing to work in bipartisan committees. The candidate elected will join a Legislature still faced with a multi-billion dollar budget shortfall and declining oil revenues, so for most of the elections this year, fiscal fixes are at the forefront of the discussion.

Knopp, a current Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly member and a general contractor, said he would consider efficiencies in each state department and determine where to find savings. At this time, he said he isn’t in favor of additional taxes, though he did support Senate Bill 128, Gov. Bill Walker’s restructuring of the Permanent Fund earnings to use them for state operations.

“People say we’re taking the Permanent Fund (Dividend), but really that particular bill guaranteed you the $1,000 anyway,” Knopp said. “At some point, this fiscal reality we’re in is a reality. At some point, you have to address it. Out of 60 legislators, nobody put a better tool in the tool box than the governor did on that one.”

Thornton, the student government advisor at Kenai Peninsula College and a legal assistant, said she would go item by item in the state’s budget and eliminate unnecessary expenditures where they could be found. She said she did not support Walker’s veto of half of the Permanent Fund Dividend appropriation and supported the lawsuit to return the full amount to recipients.

“There’s a lot of things that could be cut before we start taking the Permanent Fund out of our economy and from our people,” Thornton said. “There are a lot of communities and a lot of people that depend upon that Permanent Fund to tide them through, to hold them over, to make that stopgap for medical checkups or fuel oil, groceries.

Lynch, a retired construction worker from Soldotna, agreed that the use of the Permanent Fund earnings didn’t solve the problem. There are currently funds being spent on projects that go beyond essential services that could be cut back or eliminated before cutting harshly from services like education or health care, he said. Lynch said he would propose a 5 percent sales tax on online sales only, capturing revenue from a growing portion of purchases in the state. He also said he would consider sales tax on gasoline and alcohol to help fund state services.

“If we had … the 5 percent dedicated to the state off internet sales only, areas with a large population like Anchorage where there’s no sales tax, they would be contributing,” Lynch said. “People in the bush would be contributing. It does not punish people that shop off the internet if you’re handicapped, or whatever, because you’re still paying 1 percent less than the 6 percent (in Soldotna).”

Myers, a behavioral health counselor with the Kenaitze Indian Tribe and chairman of the Alaska Constitution Party, said he would not consider new taxes and supported returning the full Permanent Fund Dividend amount to the recipients. He proposed across-the-board cuts to every state department and reducing the size of the overall budget to a level appropriate for the state’s population.

“That way, everyone is going to have to share equally in the burden,” Myers said. “I would further advocate that education, such as in the university system, would be held more reliant upon the land grant origin so that they would put these public lands up for sale or for lease so that they can generate revenue as originally intended rather than coming to the Legislature for revenue.”

Several questions zeroed in on the candidates’ plans for development of alternative energy and how to bring low-cost energy to residents across Alaska. The very first question asked the candidates how they would handle the threat of climate change.

Thornton said the response to climate change ought to be more about adaptation than mitigation — encouraging public transportation and alternative energy to reduce the carbon footprint and educating young people about it. Some communities are already working on adapting with wind turbines and high tunnels, she said.

“We have a lot of renewable prospects in our district and within our state,” Thornton said. “… Local food is a big issue here. What if something happened? What would we do? The grocery store would be empty.”

Lynch said he has worked on a wind farm in the Interior and thought it was a good idea. Low-cost energy will help bring diversification to the state’s economy, he said.

“Each part of the state has something different going for them,” Lynch said. “… tidal would be the way to go (here) because we can set our watch by it, but it’s very expensive right now and hasn’t been researched enough to throw it in. You can run that off rivers. But (pursing alternative energy sources) needs to be done.”

Myers said the state still depends on oil and gas but needs to diversify in the future and he said he saw the value in the environmentally friendly aspects of renewable energy sources. One solution would be to allow people to develop decentralized energy projects, such as building a hydropower generator in a creek running through their property to power their own buildings, he said.

“If people want to put up their own solar cells on their rooftops or if they want to put up windmills, we should not impede them from doing so,” Myers said. “They could be all feeding into the grid and bolstering our access to clean, affordable energy. That’s the direction we have to look toward.”

Knopp said alternative energy sources are a good way of providing energy if they can be done reliably, but many are expensive to develop.

One solution to provide affordable energy to Alaskans would be that if the Alaska LNG Project does not go forward, the state could develop the Alaska Stand-Alone Pipeline project to bring the natural gas on the North Slope to the state’s residents and reduce reliance on heating oil in the winters, significantly bringing down utility bills for residents in places like Fairbanks and Seward, who rely on heating oil at present.

In the future, too, there might be customers for natural gas in-state, as in the case of Agrium potentially reopening in Nikiski.

“I’ve always said even if we didn’t have a market for that gas and sell it commercially, we could at least distribute it to the residents of the state and help along them lines,” he said.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabethearl@gmail.com.

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