District 30 candidates talk taxes

The field of candidates seeking to represent the central Kenai Peninsula to the state House of Representatives will narrow after next Tuesday, when four Republicans will face off in the primary election.

After incumbent Rep. Kurt Olson said he would not run for the District 30 seat again, eight hopefuls filed to run for his seat in the Alaska House of Representatives. Two are unaffiliated, one is running for the Alaska Constitutional Party and one is running on the Democratic ticket. The rest are running as Republicans and will have to convince voters that they are the best Republican for the race before Tuesday’s primary election.

Five of the candidates stepped up before a crowd at a joint Kenai and Soldotna chambers of commerce luncheon Tuesday to speak their piece — Keith Baxter, Gary Knopp, Rick Koch and Kelly Wolf, all running as Republicans, and Shauna Thornton, the lone Democratic Party candidate.

The state’s budget crisis took center stage in the questions posed to the candidates, though they also gave their opinions on fisheries management, how to reform the health care industry and how to bridge the divide between rural and urban Alaska communities.

All said they were generally opposed to taxes, but their approaches to them varied. Koch, Kenai’s city manager, said he opposed implementing taxes until the Legislature has implemented a spending cap. The Legislature has a process for evaluating all the departments and making recommendations for budget reduction, which Koch said he would follow before making any cuts.

“I am steadfast in my support of putting a spending cap in place,” Koch said. “If we don’t put a spending cap in place first, before we talk about revenue, if we use revenue to solve the problem, we’re never going to get to cutting the budget. That’s how government works.”

Knopp, a construction contractor and Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly representative, said he opposes taxes in general until more trimming has been done from the state budget, but if one is necessary, he said he favors an income tax. He said he does not favor any taxes on mining, commercial fisheries or consumption, but said he sees the restructuring of the Permanent Fund earnings as a reasonable way to help fund state government.

Knopp said he had specific cuts for nine state departments in mind to help trim down the operating budget, but until the state’s spending is as efficient as it should be, he would not want to look at additional revenue.

“I understand the tools that are in the tool belt to get to a balanced budget,” Knopp said. “I’m not looking to put any more tools in the tool box at this point, just using the ones that we have, and I think we can get there early in the next session.”

Baxter, who works for the Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council and serves on the Soldotna City Council, said he favors a sales tax over other types of taxes. He agreed with Knopp that the use of the Permanent Fund earnings is reasonable, but he said he would still look for efficiencies in the budget, like using distance education tools more often to trim down the education budget without negatively impacting quality. Baxter, a lifelong Kenai Peninsula resident who has children in the public school system, said he would consider the next 30 years of Alaska’s future in his decisions in the Legislature because he will be working in the state and have children here.

“Education is not something I would like to cut or talk about cutting, but I’m really hoping that we will have some distance learning technologies that might make efficiencies possible (so) that we won’t have to sacrifice the quality of education,” Baxter said.

Thornton said she is willing to consider every option to balance the state budget, including both an income and a sales tax, but not right now. Instead of an income problem, she said the state has “an allocation problem” and needs to redistribute its spending to be more efficient before raising taxes. If it is necessary, though, she said she favors a sales tax over an income tax. She said she does not support using the Permanent Fund to help pay for government.

Thornton said she would be willing to have hard conversations in Juneau without the fear of political consequences because she said she does not care about being reelected. The state needs to diversify its income from just one source such as oil or commercial fishing, she said.

“We‘ve done the same old things, we’ve rehashed the same old ideas, and we’re still rehashing them now,” Thornton said. “I disagree with them. It’s time to start coming up with some new ideas … Let’s start having this be the place that’s not dependent upon one specific income driver.”

Wolf, a construction contractor who has served in both the Legislature and the borough assembly, said he would not support restructuring the Permanent Fund. The state’s operating budget needs to be cut first, but then the Legislature should look at a statewide tax, he said. Wolf said he prefers an income tax to a sales tax if one has to be put in place. When he served in the Legislature between 2002 and 2004, then-governor Frank Murkowski asked the Legislature to consider using part of the Permanent Fund earnings to fund government; Wolf said he did not think it was a good idea then or now.

“I do not support (restructuring the Permanent Fund spending),” he said. “We have to get our spending house in order first before we even consider that.”

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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