Candidates for governor and U.S. Senate took a break on Wednesday from wooing voters to try to charm a different audience -- Anchorage eighth-graders who are too young to have the right cast ballots, but who have keen interests in the elections nonetheless.
At a forum sponsored by the AARP, the three leading candidates for governor and the three Republicans seeking to oust Democratic Sen. Mark Begich responded to questions submitted by teams of students from 11 schools. Prepared questions were read by the moderators, Anchorage Chamber of Commerce President Andrew Halcro and national AARP President-Elect Jeannine English, and each answer received polite audience applause.
First up at the forum, held at Anchorage's Z.J. Loussac Public Library, were Gov. Sean Parnell and the two main candidates seeking to replace him -- attorney Bill Walker, a Republican running as an independent, and Native leader Byron Mallott, a Democrat.
The first question posed to them, from students at Gruening and Mirror Lake middle schools, was about education. Why are classes increasingly crowded, teaching staffs shrinking and electives being eliminated? "All we hear is cut, cut, cut," said the question, read by English.
Parnell, who had used his opening statement to tout the new Alaska college scholarship program he sponsored, defended his education-funding record. But he conceded that whatever new dollars have been dedicated to education, they are not being felt in the students' classrooms.
Mallott said education is his highest priority, but that actions by the governor and the Legislature this year -- passing an education budget five days after the scheduled end of the 90-day legislative session -- indicates that they have different priorities.
What's the backup plan, Mears students asked, for a state so dependent on oil revenues when oil production is declining?
The answer, Parnell and Walker said, is more oil production.
Parnell said the oil tax cut he championed and got through the Legislature last year has already shown success in that area. "With the change in the tax regime last year, making Alaska a more attractive place to invest, what that means is that billions more dollars are flooding in right now. There's so much work on the North Slope that you can't find a bunk to sleep in anymore," he said.
Walker -- who supports a ballot referendum that would repeal Parnell's oil-tax cuts -- pointed out that state revenues are suffering, no matter how much the governor touts North Slope activity. The state now has a $2 billion deficit, compared to fat surpluses enjoyed in past years, he said. What the state should do is ensure that many more companies -- 50 or 60 -- are drilling for oil in Alaska. "They have 65 companies in Norway," he said.
Mallott said while natural resource development is important, the ultimate backup plan is investment in a knowledge-based economy. "More than anything else, we need to invest in our future through education. We want to expand the leadership capacity in this state so that our knowledge and our intellectual capacity ultimately creates our future," he said.
On health care -- and in response to a question from Romig Middle School students -- Walker and Mallott said they would expand Medicaid as proposed under the Affordable Care Act, while Parnell defended his rejection of expanded coverage for Alaskans.
Mallott said expansion would be a top priority for his administration. "The first act that I will take as governor is to accept Medicaid expansion," he said. "Every Alaskan deserves and should have affordable health care."
Accepting expanded Medicaid funding from the federal government would provide 40,000 more Alaskans with health-care coverage, and expanded health care employment, Walker said.
Parnell, one of the Republican governors who rejected Medicaid expansion offered under the act, contended that only 10,000 people would have gained coverage under that rejected Medicaid expansion. Those people already have access to free service at hospital emergency rooms, various primary care clinics and other charity services, and covering them under Medicaid would be too expensive in the long term, he said. "You folks as middle school students are going to be paying the debt for Medicaid expansion today," he said. "The Affordable Care Act is neither affordable, nor does it increase access to health care."
The gubernatorial candidates had at least one point of agreement: They oppose any requirement that voters show photo IDs before casting ballots, as was proposed in a bill that died in the state Legislature this year.
All said it would be an unnecessary burden in rural communities, where many residents lack photo IDs or easy access to acquiring them.
The Republican Senate candidates who succeeded Mallott, Parnell and Walker on the stage spent much of their time bashing the federal government that they hope to join. Begich, the incumbent, was unable to participate.
The candidates expressed opposition, in varying degrees, to congressional legislation proposing to increase the minimum wage. The answer came in response to a question posed by Polaris students.
Miller said the U.S. Constitution does not allow the federal government to set minimum wages. He conceded that wages have been low, but said immigrants and foreigners are partly to blame for that.
"The reason that we have wages where they're at today is not because the minimum wage is at one point or another. There are other things that are causing it," Miller said "A lot of the jobs that are out there are taken up by folks that, you know, really shouldn't necessarily be in our economy. You look at the guest worker program in this state, for example. When my kids go to Lowe's and Home Depot and they can't find a job there, and you've got people from outside of the country that are working there, those are some of the impacts on wages. Illegal aliens -- another thing. When we allow people illegally into this country, we can show statistically that wages go down."
Raising the minimum wage, as proposed in federal legislation, would "probably kill half a million jobs," Sullivan said.
Treadwell said that instead of worrying about the minimum wage, federal officials "should be opening ANWR right now" and doing more things to give Alaskans jobs in the fishing, mining and oil and gas industries. "In Washington, they're doing policy after policy after policy to choke us back."
All the Senate candidates said they want to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Crime and public safety did not come up in questions posed to either candidate panel, but Parnell used his closing remarks to speak passionately about ending domestic violence and sexual abuse.
"I want you to be the last generation that experiences or has friends around that experience the epidemic of domestic violence and sexual assault," Parnell said. "Young men, I want to challenge you to use your strength to protect and defend, not use it to manipulate and control. Young women ... and young men as well that have experienced this, know in your heart that if you have suffered abuse it is not your fault. There is no shame. There is no guilt."
Left unsaid at the forum was anything about problems of sexual abuse in the Alaska National Guard, now the subject of a federal investigation. Parnell is accused of failing to act on the issue for four years and neglecting pleas for action from National Guard chaplains who have been counseling victims.
Students from Mirror Lake Middle School, gathered in the library lobby after the event ended, had mixed reactions to what the candidates said. They said they heard a lot of vague statements but few concrete proposals or straightforward answers.
"It's like, 'Education is important,' but they didn't say what they were going to do about it," said Alyssa Tsukada. They appeared to have no specific ideas for improving education, she said. "If they did, they would tell us," she said.
"Quite a few questions were walked around," said Chris Goolsby, a fellow Mirror Lake student.
One exception to the vagueness, the Mirror Lake students said, was the gubernatorial candidates' opposition to voter photo ID requirements. The candidates clearly articulated their reasons for opposing that idea, the students said. And they gave Parnell kudos for his domestic violence statement.