A crowd of about 75 local voters gathered at the Homer Senior Center earlier this week to meet, listen to and ask questions of the two candidates for Alaska Senate District O — incumbent Sen. Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai, and Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna — and three candidates for House District 30 — incumbent Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer; Jon D. Faulkner, R-Homer; and Elizabeth R. Diament, D-Fritz Creek.
All of the candidates are running in new areas following redistricting this year.
"This is the best turnout of the campaign," said Wagoner, looking at the crowd in the senior center dining room.
Differences between the candidates began emerging during the two-hour forum that included introductions of each candidate by Keren Kelly, HSC executive director, the candidates' comments about themselves and responses to questions from the audience.
Wagoner, a Kenai resident since 1969, who has served as the city of Kenai mayor and on the city's council and is past dean of the Kenai Peninsula Community College, said the most important thing for the Legislature to focus on at this time is economic development and jobs.
Following Wagoner, Micciche, the mayor of Soldotna, manager of ConocoPhillips Kenai LNG facility and a commercial fisherman, used jobs as a dividing point between himself and Wagoner.
"The things Alaskans do for a living are going away," he said, referring to mining, oil and gas, tourism and fishing. "We need to encourage those by being competitive. ... The current senator has not encouraged those industries."
Micciche also took advantage of his opening comments to point out that he would not have opposed construction of a pipeline to bring natural gas to the southern peninsula.
"It being delayed two years cost the Kenai Peninsula $2 million in energy to public buildings," he said, referring to estimated savings costs if the gas pipeline had been built earlier.
Faulkner, a 23-year Homer resident and president of Land's End Resort, Van Gilder Inc. and the Kenai Landing, said his primary focus was to provide the community with choice, "a more conservative choice," he said. "When you talk about conservative it can be deceiving. I don't think (Seaton) is a conservative. I don't think he's a Republican. I don't believe the voting record of my opponent supports who he says he's representing."
With 10 years in the House of Representatives, Seaton told the audience, "I think I have a record that you well know is representative of you and engaging the local community in the state laws. ... I believe individual rights, individual responsibility and individual accountability are the basis we need to proceed on."
Seaton is a businessman in fish transportation and serves as co-chair of the House Resources Committee, the State Affairs Committee, Health and Social Services Committee and the Education Committee. He is a member of the House Majority Caucus and Bush Caucus.
He also referred to his support for bringing natural gas to the area.
"I worked hard on the gas line ... pushed for that for three years over (the governor's) vetoes. One of the biggest advantages to seniors here is it's going to be reduced energy costs to households, the senior center and things like the library as well," said Seaton.
Describing herself as a "citizen politician, 32-year-old Diament said," I took on this campaign out of frustration for the way government is going. I think if we stand together we can make meaningful, positive changes to our community."
Since coming to Homer in 2004, Diament has made her living working in small businesses, and is an avid outdoorswoman "who cherishes our abundant hunting, fishing and recreational opportunities." Her plan involves removing obstacles that "weigh down our state and communities." When it comes to protecting the state's fisheries, she believes "there is no room for back room deals" and opposes development that would trade one resource for another.
When candidates were asked their position on federal money being sent to Alaska under the Affordable Health Care Act, Diament she believed Gov. Parnell was being "pretty irresponsible" in not accepting federal money. Parnell has said he would not establish state run and federally funded insurance exchanges, one of the provisions of the health care act pushed by Pres. Barack Obama and sometimes called "Obamacare." Seaton said he was surprised Parnell had turned it down and said he supported a preventative approach to healthcare.
Faulkner, saying he was not a fan of the Affordable Health Care act, wondered why "none of these candidates have addressed how we are going to pay for it." Senate candidate Micciche said , "I don't like being forced to purchase products by my government," but added that he was willing to work on a statewide solution to healthcare coverage. Wagoner said if the federal government wanted to mandate health coverage, "let them mandate, but let the states decide how it will be covered."
On the governor's proposed tax cuts to oil companies, Wagoner pointed to the Senate's efforts to create legislation that would reward increased production, while Micciche reminded the audience that Alaska's oil industry "pays 94 percent of everything we do. ... The Senate started down the right path, but they haven't been able to come up with an agreement in the last three years."
Diament urged for the guarantee of increased production before issuing tax breaks and Seaton, who voted against the tax breaks, expressed the need to know the impacts of any cuts before they were approved.
"We didn't know what the analysis would be," Seaton said about House Bill 110. "I'm proud I voted no on the bill and everybody else should have."
"I think (Seaton's) approach to oil taxation is to look at the effect of oil taxation on revenues," said Faulkner. "Philosophically, I want to look at oil taxation as it affects producers. They are the ones who choose to do business in Alaska. There is a point where they are going to chose to not do business in Alaska."
The candidates also were asked to state any philosophical problems with Ballot Measure No. 2, establishment of an Alaska Coastal Management Program. Diament said she had none, Seaton said he supported the ballot measure, and, while Faulkner said he had no philosophical problem with Alaska's control of the coast, he opposed inviting more federal control.
"If anything, we need more state control," he said.
Although he supported legislation to establish an Alaska Coastal Management Program, Wagoner said he could not vote for the initiative as it is written.
Rather than support a ballot measure that he believed created "too many unanswered questions," Micciche said, "If Alaskans want more, they need to push their legislators to put something on the table that has clear responsibilities."
In answer to a question about the retirement program for state workers and the challenges of non-public employees having to fund their retirement while also paying for that of state workers, Faulkner showed sympathy.
"Let's think about the people who aren't being taken care of," he said, talking about the private sector. "Who's taking care of them? Who can afford to take care of them? Can the private sector sustain what's coming?"
Seaton noted that the Legislature addressed the issue of an unfunded liability for state workers with a defined benefit by changing the system for new state workers to a defined contribution program. There still is the problem of an unfunded liability for the defined benefit program.
"Where we are today is much more affordable than we are with Tier 1," Micciche said, referring to the defined benefit plan. Defined contribution plans are more in line with private plans, he said.
Wagoner said that liability should be paid down some. He noted the state isn't having problems finding new hires, something Diament disputed. Government should step up and set an example by going back to a defined benefit plan, she said.
"We as a government have to step up as an example of how we want to live," she said. "I don't think the private sector with a 401(k) is a good example."
The final request from Tuesday's audience was for the candidates to state their views on the Pebble mine.
"The problem is, it's not a mine. It's not a proposal yet. We don't know if it's going to be underground or open pit," said Seaton. "We need to wait until we see what the project is. We need to see what all the elements are."
"I would say that's great, but I didn't hear where you stand in terms of advocating for the advancement of the mine," said Faulkner, adding, "We need to challenge ourselves to find better ways. It starts with saying yes and not necessarily no, we can't."
Diament made it clear that, in her opinion, "There is no way that a mine can be developed that won't put our fisheries at risk."
"I can't say I'm in favor of it or not, but I can say I'm not in favor of exchanging one resource for another," said Micciche.
Wagoner said Pebble "might be our next Prudhoe Bay, if we do it right." The state does have a stronger permitting process, he said. Wagoner also said he did not support the taxation structure for mines.
"I don't know why we don't get a 12.5 percent royalty per pound of copper or pound of gold," he said.