In the race for the Alaska State House seat in District 30, which represents Kenai and Soldotna, petition candidate James Baisden is running against Republican nominee Ron Gillham. Baisden spoke with the Clarion on Oct. 14 about his candidacy. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. Gillham has not responded to the Clarion’s multiple interview requests as of this article’s publication.
Why did you decide to run for state house?
Baisden: I started this process back at the first of the year. I’ve been working as the borough mayor’s chief of staff for the last three years, and I get to see how the state’s budget has affected us locally. And really we’re in a tough situation. In conversations with my wife we asked, ‘Could I go down there and be one of those voices that can be a positive effect on the state budget?’
Really, we’re worried about the direction we’re going. It seems like we keep on doing things that are gonna make it difficult on our children in the future, and we need to make some tough decisions now to fix this.
Party politics played a big role in the last legislative session, especially in the district you’re running for. What is your plan to approach that challenge and do what needs to be done down in Juneau.
Baisden: Well, I am a Republican running as a petition candidate, so I’m in a position where I don’t have major party support. I don’t have any other party supporting me. It’s pretty much a grassroots effort. What I’d like to be able to think is that in my career, I’ve been a people person.
As a fire chief, one of the strongest attributes that I have is being able to work with people and get them things they need, and relationships are going to be huge down there. You’ve got to be able to sit at the table with people who may not belong to the same party that you are, and you’re gonna have to get 40 people to come to a consensus, and I think I have that ability. I’ve done that for many years in the position I’m in now, and I think I could be pretty good at it down there.
In looking at the state’s budget, do you think that we can afford a “full PFD” as others are calling for? And in general how do you see the budget discussion playing out next year?
Baisden: Probably the No. 1 question that any of us are going to get asked is that question. ‘What are you going to do with the PFD? Can you get back to the statutory PFD or is it going to be where it’s at today with the PoMV?’
Right now there’s $3.1 billion programmed to be moved out next year for the permanent fund. We’ve got a situation that I didn’t create, where we’ve deleted the constitutional budget reserve. We’ve got about $7 billion in the earnings reserve of the permanent fund. So if we do anything right now, the way I see it happening is that the only place we can point to is the earnings reserve. So what are we gonna do? Keep on taking money out of the earnings reserve until it’s gone? Again, I don’t think that solves our problem.
I want every Alaskan to get the largest PFD we can afford. I just think we’re in a situation where it’s going to be difficult, and until I get down there, I can’t make a promise that it’s going to be the statutory PFD because I don’t think that’s the right thing to do right now. Everybody’s going to have to have a piece of this. It doesn’t matter where you’re at or what part of the state you’re in. We’re all going to have to fix this. It took us many years to get here, and it’s going to take us quite a few years to get back out of it. The PFD is probably going to have to play a part in that, and I don’t want to be one of the people who is saying that we’re going to have to guarantee that, because if we do that, we’re going to have to get that revenue from somewhere else.
So the next question is, where are we going to get the revenue from? We’re at $40 for a barrel of oil. We don’t have as much fluid flowing in the pipeline right now, so where’s it going to come from? Are we going to tax working-class Alaskans? That’s going to be difficult.
What would you prioritize when it comes to balancing the state’s budget?
Baisden: One of the things I’ve told everybody is that if I’m doing my job right, I don’t think anybody that is in my group is going to be liked because everybody’s going to have a piece of this. We’re going to be in a situation where budget cuts will have to be at the top of the list. We have a state government that we cannot afford right now, so budget reductions are going to have to be a part of it.
I’ve also got three kids in the education system here and I see how important it is to be able to support our local schools. The state is not able to do revenue sharing or bond reimbursements with our local communities, and what that means is the borough and the municipalities who have the taxing authority are going to be under a lot of pressure to do the taxing if you want to continue those programs. That’s the shift that’s going to take place until we get the state House back in order.
So if you were in the House next session, would you be pushing the state to fund things like education and bond debt reimbursement?
Baisden: If we’re going to do any kind of reductions in state spending it’s got to be done reasonably. We’ve still got to have public safety. We’ve still got to have our education paid for and we’ve still got to have our infrastructure.
So reductions are gonna have to take place over time, just like it took us time to get here. Our budget deficit went from $1 billion last year to $2.4 billion this year, and that’s why I’m saying it’s hard for me to wrap my hands around how we’re going to afford that. Unless we look at the other monies that are sitting out there.
We have a few different big pots of money in the budget that typically isn’t touched. The power equalization fund, there’s a billion or so dollars in there. There’s a billion or so dollars in the university system. There are these places where money is sitting that can be swept out, and we could use that to help offset it. But again, it’s only a short-term fix.
As we do that we’re going to ask Alaskans to pay for this, we’re going to ask the industry to pay for it, and we may end up at a point where we have to have revenue from the workers of the state. But I want to see that be the last resort.
Moving on to the pandemic, is there anything that the state Legislature should do next session to help keep the Kenai Peninsula’s economy afloat as COVID-19 continues to affect the state?
Baisden: Well, I want to see us keep Alaska open, and I think we’ve done a pretty good job here on the peninsula. We don’t have huge numbers right now, although we did get a spike in the last week and schools are back to being online. So we’re being very cautious, maybe a little more cautious than some would like because it’s having a negative effect on businesses.
I get to see the tax rolls, and because of this pandemic, we’re going to have less revenue from the businesses that are hurting right now. We’ve been able to get CARES Act money out to small businesses and that can be a short-term fix. But where the state can play a major part is putting pressure on the federal government, because right now, the CARES Act money cannot be used for revenue replacement. So this year we had to use our fund balance in the borough to keep things afloat while we go through this. At some point, if we have money left over and we can use that for revenue enhancement, the state can help us with that and that would be a big deal.
As cases start to rise on the peninsula and around the state, do you think that the state government should be doing anything more with Public Health to slow the infection rate?
Baisden: I like to see the state in a good educational role. I don’t want to see the state mandate anything when it comes to dealing with the situation, and I think Alaskans know what they need to do.
For example, we have space where we’re at right now. You’re wearing a mask — I would wear a mask if it made you feel more comfortable. If I go into a place of business that wants me to wear a mask I put one on. So I think we need to continue doing those things until we can get a real fix for this. We just have to use common sense.
I’m not in any way scared of it. I think we just have to take some precautions, and I trust Alaskans to do the right thing. We were talking about it today. The borough administration building is probably the cleanest it’s ever been. We’ve got somebody at the front door that will offer masks, and they can clean their hands and we’ve tried to mitigate as much as possible. I think that’s where we need to be at the state level, playing an educational role and getting the medical information out there that we need to hear.
In your ads you’ve labeled yourself “The Republican” in this race, but you are not the Republican Party nominee. Why didn’t you participate in the Republican primary?
Baisden: We did that because, on the ballot, I’m a petition nominee. I ran a petition campaign outside the primary. The main reason was we originally had two challengers running against the incumbent, and if I was a fourth candidate the numbers would have favored the incumbent. I wanted us to have two choices in the general election, which we do right now.
Of course the tragic event that took place with Representative Knopp, nobody saw that coming and that was tragic. And that changed a lot of the political news for us in this district. I do that advertisement because a lot of people think that I’m trying to hide my party. Typically, when you run as a petition candidate, some people in this district think you’re trying to hide it. I’m not trying to hide it. I’ve been a Republican my entire life and I’m proud of that. I don’t have any reason not to be, but because I did not go through the primary I’m not affiliated with the party and I’m not their official selection.
Isn’t that the point of a primary, to have a bunch of different candidates in the same party vying for the same position?
Baisden: Well it is, but our state also has the petition way of getting on the ballot. And it’s pretty rigorous — the time it takes to go out and get people to sign the petition. Then think about being a petition candidate, you don’t get any funding from any party, so you’re on your own. And you don’t get people who are tied into the party to come out and sponsor you because they’re bound to what they can and can’t do.
So it’s more difficult running as a petition candidate. Again, I want to see us have a choice in the election and I think we have that for District 30 and most people welcome it.
What would you say to people who might have a problem with the fact that you subverted the primary process in a majority Republican district?
Baisden: It’s not subverting. We’ve got three petition candidates running this year and probably more throughout the state, so it’s just another proper way to do it. If it wasn’t proper, it wouldn’t be an option.
So why should voters choose you over the candidate that was actually nominated by the Republican Party?
Baisden: I think my experience outweighs what my opponent has. I think my last few years here specifically in government, I interact with our assembly, understand how our revenue works. It’s a very complex system, and our borough is the size of West Virginia.
I’ve got 15 directors and five fire chiefs that report directly to me. I’ve got a real good handle on the local politics, and in my career I’ve gotten to work with the representatives in Juneau, whether it was our senator or our House district people. I understand the process of how legislation works because I get to work on that in my job, so I think I’m uniquely qualified because I can hit the ground running and I don’t have to wait for somebody else’s talking points to get started.
Reach reporter Brian Mazurek at email@example.com.