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Throw the bums out? Take care -- some courageous legislators are at risk

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: July 21, 2016
  • Published July 20, 2016

Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, at the State Capitol in Juneau on April 17, 2015. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

A lot of Alaskans say they are planning to vote against all incumbents to clean out the Legislature that failed to handle our fiscal crisis. But some legislators who showed courage trying to reach a solution are the most at risk.

Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, proposed a comprehensive fiscal plan. On a key element, oil tax credits, he pulled together a truly bipartisan group in the state House, spanning the most liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans. Now leaders of his own party have recruited an opponent to defeat him in the primary.

The Republican Party has endorsed an opponent to Rep. Jim Colver, R-Palmer, a founder of the "Musk Ox Coalition" in the House, so named because its six members circled protectively around the Alaska Permanent Fund when their own leaders were contemplating an irresponsible budget solution last year that would have drained $5 billion of the fund's Earnings Reserve, making the fiscal crisis much worse.

Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, also faces a tough challenge. He formed a bipartisan coalition to reform Alaska's criminal code, one of the Legislature's few systemic actions to save money. He also voted with his majority for the most significant part of a fiscal solution, Senate Bill 128, the Permanent Fund restructuring and dividend cut (which didn't get a vote in the House).

Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, crossed party lines to vote for SB 128, persuaded, he said, by Gov. Bill Walker. Sen. Anna MacKinnon shepherded the bill through the Senate Finance Committee so it could get its remarkable positive vote from Senate Republicans. Now she is forming a bipartisan group to work over the summer. Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, voted for SB 128 and supported Seaton's deeper cut of the tax credits.

Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, offered a compromise on the dividend when the House Finance Committee was debating SB 128. Other Democrats left him hanging.

But Egan and MacKinnon don't have to run for reelection this year and Steadman and Gara, solid in their districts, have no opponents.

Coghill, Colver and Seaton are at risk. Voters need to be discriminating about which bums they throw out or the Legislature could actually get worse.

It isn't impossible to figure out what's going on. When I wrote about the difficulty of getting the facts on candidates last week, reader Anita Dale shared the VoteSmart.org website, which tracks key bills and other information about politicians.

In our small state you can talk to candidates directly. Most of them are dying to talk to voters.

Look for candidates with complex answers to your questions, not just slogans. If they offer something that sounds too good to be true — such as a promise that you don't have to pay taxes or lose any of your dividend, but we can still have teachers, troopers and road graders — then it probably isn't true.

Homer Mayor Beth Wythe is taking on Seaton in the Republican primary. She has gained respect as a straight-forward local government leader and comes from an old Homer family. When I called she answered her phone on the first ring and explained her views forthrightly.

Wythe thinks Republican members of the House should settle their differences in caucus meetings — which are private — and out of caucus meetings should only represent the position of the group. She thinks voters should be able to choose representatives based on party label, so candidates should stick to the party platform.

Wythe opposed Seaton's solutions for the fiscal gap, but, like the majority she would join, she could offer only the impossibility of keeping the oil tax credits, opposing income taxes and keeping services.

She said she was recruited to run by state Republican Party leaders, but wouldn't disclose specifically who asked her to file.

Seaton has represented Homer since 2002. He's a folksy guy with a white beard and a Greek fisherman's cap, friendly and well-liked. He shows up at all kinds of community events. You would never guess from meeting him that he is a whiz on the intricacies of oil taxes and other details of the state's finances.

Seaton works with both parties. He states his views openly and often. Every week he writes an extraordinarily detailed newsletter that tells constituents what he is doing in each of his committees — not just photos, like most legislative newsletters.

Seaton's philosophy of government is opposite from Wythe's. Whatever your political outlook, I think he has it right.

"I try to engage with folks to let them know where I am and why I am voting on issues that are controversial," he said. "Let people know, and they get this other choice in the election."

On May 13, the House adopted an oil tax credit bill, House Bill 247, with Seaton's compromise amendments, by a margin of 25-12, with 13 Republicans and 12 Democrats voting in favor, including members at the far ends of the political spectrum. The Republican leadership opposed the bill.

The Senate watered down the bill — although it will still save substantial money for the state — and when it came back to the House enough votes changed to accept the weaker version.

On that day, Seaton predicted that no fiscal gap solution would pass this year. Too many House members would be unwilling to give up part of the dividend without cutting more expenses, and the oil tax credits were the largest expense available to cut.

He was right. But he's an even-tempered guy, and he's ready to go back to work on it next year and make it work.

If he gets the opportunity.

If all of Homer were voting, Seaton would be a shoo-in. But he is running in a closed Republican primary with the Republican Party gunning for him. No Democrat is running, largely because Seaton is so popular, so the winning Republican gets the seat.

We say we want courage and bipartisanship from our politicians. In four weeks, we'll see if that's true.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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