Before an auditorium full of Anchorage middle-schoolers along with a few retirees, candidates for Alaska governor and U.S. Senate on Wednesday answered questions put forward by the students, who won't even be able to vote for at least four years.
They talked about education funding and the future of Social Security, Medicaid and Obamacare, voter ID and the minimum wage.
The forums were sponsored by the AARP and moderated by the organization's national president-elect, Jeannine English, and Andrew Halcro, Anchorage Chamber of Commerce president.
First up: Gov. Sean Parnell, Democratic challenger Byron Mallott and Republican-running-as-independent Bill Walker.
Class sizes are increasing, the number of teachers is dropping, and elective classes are vanishing, the candidates were told.
"All we hear is cut, cut, cut," English said, reading the question from Gruening and Mirror Lake students. "What do you plan to do to fix future funding of education in Alaska?"
Parnell told the students his education reform package had passed the Legislature this year and that he earlier pushed through a state scholarship program for Alaska graduates. During his time in office the state had upped what it was putting into schools by $300 million a year. "There's something wrong, isn't there?" Parnell said. "You're not seeing it in your classrooms necessarily."
Advocates for Alaska schools say that expenses have gone up and that the state needs to dramatically increase its annual funding formula for schools, which the governor didn't back and the Legislature failed to do this year.
Mallott said education is his top priority and shouldn't be one of the last items to get through the Legislature each year.
"We must fund education fully, we must fund it early and we must create certainty," Mallott said.
Walker said the state budget deficit, an estimated $1.6 billion in the coming year, means the state is in the hole about $5 million a day. The state must revitalize the economy to generate money needed for schools, he said.
On whether the state should expand its Medicaid insurance program, both challengers said they would do so -- Mallott said he would make it his first act as governor. The Affordable Care Act allows state Medicaid expansions to provide coverage for low-income adults who otherwise don't have insurance.
But Parnell, who rejected an expansion, said the new law was supposed to make health care more affordable and more accessible "and it really does neither."
People without insurance can get treatment at emergency rooms and primary care clinics, he said. But he acknowledged they need better access to specialists and treatment of chronic conditions.
What about requiring people to show official picture IDs in order to vote? Mallott and Walker said that was a bad idea. Parnell said "it's incredibly important" to ensure voters are properly identified. But in rural communities, people can't get official photo ID cards, and until they can, the state shouldn't require voters to show picture IDs, he said.
The Senate forum was minus incumbent Democrat Mark Begich. He was in Washington, D.C., where Republicans blocked a Senate vote on raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, which Begich is pushing.
ON MINIMUM WAGE
Three Republicans -- Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, former Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan, and Fairbanks attorney Joe Miller -- fighting for a chance to challenge Begich in November were asked about the proper role of the federal government in determining the minimum wage.
Sullivan said 24 percent of teens are unemployed as it is and that a Congressional Budget Office study found that the proposed federal boost would "probably kill a half million jobs." He didn't mention the other main point in the report, that more than 16 million Americans would see wages rise.
Treadwell noted that Alaska voters will get a chance to decide the matter here in November. The issue should be resolved at the state level, not the national level, he said. Federal policies are choking opportunity here, he said.
Miller, a tea party favorite who maintains the federal government's powers should be limited to those spelled out in the U.S. Constitution, said there's no real role for the feds in setting a minimum wage. Pay levels are depressed for various reasons, he said.
"My kids -- I've got seven -- well, how many kids at home, I lose count," Miller said. "I got four at home and I got four out of the house but they all want jobs."
Miller contended the guest worker program -- which allows foreign-born people to work in host countries temporarily, usually in low-skilled jobs -- is taking up jobs that Alaskans may want.
"My kids go to the Lowe's and Home Depot and they can't find a job there and you got people from outside the country that are working there and those are some of the impacts on wages," Miller said. "Illegal aliens" bring wages down.
As to concerns about the solvency of the Social Security program and what the government should do to ensure payments, Treadwell said the government must keep its promises, but change may be needed.
Miller, who calls the program "intergenerational theft," noted that his parents are dependent on it. He said the government should pay what it owes to people 50 and older and that for younger people, a new, private system may be the answer.
Sullivan said Social Security "is on an unsustainable path." Most younger people never expect to receive a check. It's time for serious reform, he said.
'REALLY MESSED UP'
After the forums, a small group of students from Central Middle School gave their views of the candidates and had an especially strong reaction to Miller.
"What he said about illegal aliens was really messed up," said Stephen Morgan, 14. "America is part of the free. You can come here and not feel worried." Yet Miller made it sound like immigrants just want to push others out of their jobs, he said.
"I know what you mean!" Olivia Webster, 13, said. She said she liked Sullivan's background in public service and the Marines. The fact he has three teenage daughters also connected with some of the kids.
Torianne Faualo, 13, said Treadwell interested her. "He doesn't think of himself," she said. "He thinks of other people."
As to the governor candidates, the students all said Parnell stood out in a good way but they also were intrigued by Walker.
By LISA DEMER