Jobs for Alaskans, funding for education and improving health care were topics that resonated with five candidates vying for three seats in the state House of Representative as they discussed their legislative goals during a forum Tuesday in Soldotna.
The five candidates running for Districts 29, 30 and 31 within the Kenai Peninsula answered questions in front of a packed audience at a joint Soldotna and Kenai Chambers of Commerce luncheon at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.
The two candidates running for District 29 are both Nikiski residents. House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Niksiki, was first elected to the house in 2000, while his challenger is Rocky Knudsen, a Democrat and a political newcomer.
In District 30, Shauna Thornton, a Democrat from Kenai, is the challenger against incumbent Rep. Kurt Olson, R-Soldotna, first elected to the house in 2004.
Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer is running unopposed for District 31, a seat he has held since 2002.
Knudsen, 60, said working as an electrician with IBEW for 38 years gives him the perspective of an Alaskan worker, a voice he hopes to represent in Juneau. He admitted the vast difference of experience between himself and his opponent.
Chenault, 57, said experience comes if the commitment to help people is there.
“I had zero experience when I took this office and gained it from the school of hard knocks, which I believe (Knudsen) comes from, by having fortitude to do what’s right for the constituents of my district,” Chenault said.
Thornton, 51, a recent college graduate from the University of Alaska Anchorage said working in student government gave her the desire to effect change. She said if she could deal with issues facing 34,000 students, she could handle the 17,000 residents in the Kenai-Soldotna area.
“I am out there in the community every single day, every event, every single time,” she said. “Community involvement is very important to me. I’m glad I live here and don’t think I would live anywhere else.”
Olson, 66, started out his journey to the state house by serving eight years on the Central Emergency Service area board and two years on the Soldotna city council. He said experience in oil and gas and workman’s compensation issues led him on a path to public service and gave him the confidence to be a viable candidate.
Seaton said he has always made a point of keeping the people in his district informed each week during the legislative session, which can help him make changes through the process.
The candidates were given a minute each to share two priorities they would work to improve if elected.
Seaton said he would continue to focus on healthcare services. As a fisherman he also is well in tune with fishery issues, he said. In 2011, Seaton helped pass legislation toward a “Prevention of Disease” model of health care, increased awareness of Vitamin D, reduce costs associated with health care for businesses and improve wellness for employees.
“The most important thing is to address the health of our state,” he said. “(Alaska) is No. 1 in almost every disease. If we don’t get control of our health and social services budget, we will not be able to control our future.”
Olson and Thornton emphasized proper funding for education as a top goal if elected.
In the past, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District was shorted millions of dollars due to the way the area cost differential was calculated, Olson said.
“We don’t want to see that again,” Olson said. “The legislative budget committee is in the process of looking at how fund education and how to get the most bang for the buck and do it more efficiently so money goes where it’s needed.”
Thornton said education is a means to become pro-active and eliminate social issues.
“Through education all things are possible,” she said.
Chenault said education has been a big issue the last couple years and he has worked on legislation to ensure the Kenai Peninsula borough education system is treated fairly. His other priority is seeing the LNG gas pipeline project advance down the right track.
“All three major companies, weather you like them or not, are singing from the same sheet of music,” he said. “We need to as a state, continue to hold their feet to the fire and get a gas pipeline project that terminates in the Nikiski area.”
Knudsen said he is all about creating more jobs in the oil and gas industry and wants to see the LNG move forward. He said he would like to see more vocational training classes be offered to ensure the skilled workers for these jobs come from within the state.
“It is vital that Alaskans are hired for the new jobs,” he said. “I believe the state is doing the right thing.”
With voters rejecting Ballot Measure 1 to keep the oil tax structure from Senate Bill 21 in place, Seaton said it is important to make commonsense changes to the bill and remove the risk the state may face if oil prices crash.
“If the big three lose money we own 35 percent next year and that could do harm to our economy,” he said. “Hopefully the fix makes things better in the future.”
All the candidates agreed on hiring local employees for skilled trade jobs.
Olson said the state has lost a lot of highly skilled oil and gas workers to North Dakota where oil production has increased. An increase of welding programs in the state would help, he said.
Chenault said his company, Qwick Construction, had a history of hiring every eligible Alaskan. However, companies in need of a specific skill take what is available.
“If the union hall cannot provide enough skilled craft, they go elsewhere,” he said. “They have to have people to do the best work. By giving our kids more opportunity to gain a skill set to provide good paying job in oil or construction work, it is imperative to continue educating kids (with vocational and technical training). Some kids don’t want to go to college but want to make a good living.”
All the candidates agreed parents should have the option of deciding where their children go to school.
Chenault said if he had the option to take a child to any school and got the results he wanted, it works for him. However, if schools pick and choose which students they take, he would not be in favor of choice.
Knudsen said if parents choose a private school, taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for it.
Seaton said the voucher system is not held to any accountability for curriculum, for teacher’s qualifications or testing. If money would be taken away from public schools, accountability would need to be addressed.
Newcomers Knudsen and Thornton leaned on their life experience as reasons they decided to run for a state office. Knudsen said he may be a first year apprentice when it comes to politics but he said public input will guide him.
“I have a vote and will use it to benefit all Alaskans,” he said.
Thornton said her platform is to be accessible, transparent and do the right things.
“I can’t do this job without your input,” she said. “I want to represent my community and make sure their voice is heard.”