A year off from the political scene is apparently long enough for Kelly Wolf.
After leaving the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly in the October 2015 general election, the Kenai resident took a step back from politics but stayed busy — an active board member with the Friendship Mission in North Kenai and working with youth on habitat restoration projects through the Youth Restoration Corps, the nonprofit he founded with his wife Vera, he’s always found things to do.
But people still called and he kept an eye on what was happening in politics. Nearly six months of inaction from the Legislature and threats to the sustainability of the Permanent Fund led him to run for the Alaska House of Representatives seat for District 30, which covers most of the central Kenai Peninsula. Longtime representative Kurt Olson announced his intention not to return to the Legislature for another term, leaving his seat open. Eight candidates filed for the race, the most contested state-level elected office in the 2016 election cycle.
“I’ve had people ask, ‘Why do you want to do this again?’ I guess the reason is I’m not happy with the process. The process to me is wrong,” Wolf said. He added jokingly, “My wife this time has said, ‘I’ll support you.’ I take that to mean, ‘I’ll vote for you.’”
Before sitting on the borough assembly from 2012–2015 — Wolf took over current assembly representative and competing District 30 candidate Gary Knopp’s seat when he term limited out, and Knopp unseated him in 2015 — Wolf served as the District 30 representative to the Alaska House of Representatives for one term from 2002–2004.
Foremost among his concerns is the preservation of the Permanent Fund Dividend program, which Gov. Bill Walker capped at a $1,000 payout for this year in order to use some of the earnings to help cover the state’s looming $3.5 billion budget gap. In a recent local forum including all the Republican primary candidates for House District 30, Wolf said he is the only one that does not support restructuring the Permanent Fund structure.
“Going after their PFD is a really bad idea,” Wolf said. “Crack the armor of the Permanent Fund and I firmly believe (the legislators) are going to drain it dry.”
Wolf has heard the debate over the Permanent Fund before. In 2004, then-governor Frank Murkowski asked the Legislature to consider using the earnings of the Permanent Fund to help cover the cost of government. When the Legislature recessed without doing so, Murkowski called them back in a special session to discuss it. Wolf, to the chagrin of the governor, refused to go. In a 2004 comment to the Anchorage Daily News, he said the Alaska State Troopers could force him to go and he would not “put up a fight if law enforcement does come to his door.”
Wolf said he’s never been afraid to upset the apple cart in government bodies and do what he sees as right. He gave the example of when the Legislature was debating education funding in 2003, he told a constituent to fill legislators’ mailboxes with postcards to get their voices heard. He said several legislators expressed their displeasure by then leaving the postcards on his desk.
“They didn’t want to hear from the constituents,” Wolf said. “That’s not good policy. That’s how I think.”
Though he’s a regular in the local political scene and has run for office a number of times, most of what fills Wolf’s speech and time is the YRC. The nonprofit, now in its 19th year, mentors at-risk youth between 15 and 18 years old through community projects. Wolf said he and his wife stay in touch with many of the kids who move through the program over the years.
“Between us, we have 40 years of youth counseling experiencing,” Wolf said. “When we ask God to bless our kids, we have a lot of them.”
His argument for the preservation of the PFD tracks with a desire to work for the youth. Young families typically have smaller incomes and look forward to the PFD disbursements each fall. Preserving that program for the future will be important for the generations to come, he said. To that end, he said he disagrees with Walker’s veto of the appropriation for the PFD, saying that “he took $57 million out of the Kenai Peninsula.”
Something has to be done about the state’s fiscal situation, though. Wolf said he wouldn’t rule out looking at a broad-based income and sales tax, but only after looking first to cut more from the state’s budgets. He mentioned highly paid middle management in the state government and savings accounts at the individual state agencies as two places to look first. Alaska’s population is too small to sustain its current spending, even with a tax, so the spending must come down first, he said. In any case, the days of no income or sales tax may be over, he said.
“The simple way of that was that everybody has skin in the game, what they’d like to see in their home town … instead of just relying on oil revenue to pay for it,” Wolf said. “At some point, we’re just going to have to face the reality that we don’t have enough revenue.”
He said he’s not afraid to take point on discussions in the Legislature, which needs to be done to reach a budget agreement. One of the first things they should look at is reducing their own salaries and travel budgets, he said, as well as keeping to their time limits — every day the Legislature is meeting, the legislators are being paid as well as all the staff and the staff at the Legislative Information Offices around the state in addition to the cost for office supplies, room rentals and electricity bills.
Fiscal issues are first and foremost in Wolf’s mind for the next session, though he said he is also concerned about the role the governor has taken in influencing the Legislature.
“There’s a bridge between the Legislature and the executive branch,” Wolf said. “We have three branches of government for a reason … The governor should not have the authority to walk across that bridge and influence the legislative branch.”
Reach Elizabeth Earl by email@example.com.