Photo by Elizabeth Earl/Peninsula Clarion The three candidates for the House of Representatives District 30 seat, nonpartisan Daniel Lynch (left), Republican Gary Knopp (center) and Democrat Shauna Thornton met for a forum at a joint Kenai and Soldotna chambers of commerce luncheon Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2016 at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska. The three and the Alaska Constitution Party's candidate, J.R. Myers, will face off Nov. 8 to replace current representative Kurt Olson.

Photo by Elizabeth Earl/Peninsula Clarion The three candidates for the House of Representatives District 30 seat, nonpartisan Daniel Lynch (left), Republican Gary Knopp (center) and Democrat Shauna Thornton met for a forum at a joint Kenai and Soldotna chambers of commerce luncheon Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2016 at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska. The three and the Alaska Constitution Party's candidate, J.R. Myers, will face off Nov. 8 to replace current representative Kurt Olson.

Election approaches in contested District 30

There’s still a week to go until Election Day, but many Alaskans can’t wait to vote.

So far, 36,229 people statewide have already cast their ballots. Of those, 17,075 of them are early votes, only about 5,100 less than the total in the last election in 2014.

Early voting is high nationally — as of Nov. 1, about 27.7 million people had already cast their ballots, according to figures from the Associated Press Election Research Group. In 37 states today, voters can cast early ballots without a justification, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Those numbers aren’t parsed out into districts yet — the Alaska Divisions of Elections only counts them on a statewide level until after Nov. 8.

Kenai Peninsula voters will have the opportunity to weigh in on all their Alaska House of Representative candidates as well as one Senate candidate in District P, which covers the southern peninsula. Two of the candidates — current Speaker of the House Rep. Mike Chenault (R-Nikiski) and Rep. Paul Seaton (R-Homer) — are running unopposed, though Pedro Fernandez of Seward is running a write-in campaign against Chenault.

The race for the District 30 House of Representatives seat, however, is highly contested, with four candidates vying to represent the Kenai/Soldotna area. Eight people originally filed to run for the seat and were whittled down to four after the Republican Primary. Now, Republican Gary Knopp, Democrat Shauna Thornton, Constitution Party candidate J.R. Myers and nonpartisan candidate Daniel Lynch are all working to get their messages out to voters before Election Day.

Lynch, Knopp and Thornton met for a forum before the joint Kenai and Soldotna Chambers of Commerce Tuesday. Each of them built on ideas they’ve relayed over the course of the last few months, addressing taxes, party politics and strategies for budget cuts.

Most of the events between candidates have been relatively bloodless, but a few jabs were flung Tuesday. Lynch brought up the differences between his campaign, which is self-funded, and Knopp’s and Thornton’s.

“I believe I’m the most conservative person sitting at this table, both in my personal lifestyle and in this campaign,” he said in answer to a question about his qualifications to balance the state budget. “I’m not working with $40,000 of special interest money (like Knopp) or $20,000 (like Thornton). I know that in a campaign, if you spend other people’s money, when you get to Juneau, it’s very easy to spend other people’s money.”

Knopp took a stab at the other two candidates’ campaign slogans — Lynch has run under the banner of opposing the “status quo” and Thornton’s signs bear the slogan “We Deserve Better.”

“My campaign doesn’t have a catchy phrase or a sound byte about how we deserve better or status quo,” Knopp said. “We deserve better than what? It’s pretty good right now. And status quo? I think we’re anything but status quo. We haven’t been status quo for a long time. So when I hear them, I just think, ‘What are we thinking here?’ So, I think you want to send the candidate to Juneau who’s aware of what’s happening, what the issues are and has a process, a methodology for getting things resolved.”

They came to a more civil debate on taxes. All three said they favor some kind of new revenue, saying they would support new taxes on fuel, mining and the tourism industry. Lynch advocates for a statewide 5 percent sales tax on online sales only, saying it would tap into revenue without penalizing people who shop online because it would still be 1 percent less than the sales tax paid at brick-and-mortar locations in places like Soldotna.

Thornton said the state government will have to be wary of implementing statewide taxes that could disproportionately affect one group. Sometimes implementing a tax costs more than the revenue it brings in, and the Legislature will have to consider that as well, she said. Of the different types of taxes, she said she favors an income tax over a sales tax.

“You need to look at broad-based so that everybody has an equal share, everybody has equal investment into the community,” she said.

Knopp has said in other forums that he’s not necessarily in favor of taxes because there are still efficiencies to find in state operations. During the Tuesday forum, he said the decision to implement new taxes would ultimately come from comparing the value of new revenue with the cost of implementing tax. He said he is in favor of an income tax over a sales tax, if the state comes to that.

“If you tax that industry, it should go to support that industry,” he said. “At the end of the day, for me, that decision would be made when I look at projected revenues and the cost of administering that program. At this point, I don’t have that information … I wouldn’t venture one way or the other, but that would be the deciding factor in my decision.”

All three agreed that the state cannot cut its way to a balanced budget, but their opinions on how to cut varied. Lynch called anything not mandated by the Alaska Constitution — anything beyond education, health and welfare — “fluff” that could be reviewed and trimmed. Knopp said the state has to identify inefficiencies and anything that is not essential; Thornton said she would look at expenditures that “are grossly inflated” in the state budget and manage the state budget with thoughtful cuts.

The candidates also discussed the two-year House of Representatives cycle influencing votes. During the budget discussions this year in the Legislature, the question arose whether legislators were voting with their consciences or with their poll numbers in mind because of the unpopularity of some of the proposals, such as Senate Bill 128, which would restructure the Permanent Fund earnings to help fund government.

The three candidates said they were all prepared to carry through the work that needs to be done in Juneau. All three said they weren’t looking for long terms as legislators. Thornton said she would support the idea of open caucuses, but Knopp said a lot of the hard work in the Legislature happens in closed caucuses.

“Every time I’ve asked the question (of former legislators), the answer I got was, ‘Closed caucuses are absolutely essential. If you didn’t have them in a place where the doors are locked and you can speak freely and have your debate with no press, no adversaries, you could never accomplish anything,’” he said.

Lynch said as a nonpartisan, he and some of the other independent candidates in the state could help bridge the space between the parties in Juneau if the votes were torn.

“Whoever’s got the good ideas, that’s where I’m going,” he said.

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

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