FAIRBANKS — In a busy night of politics, local candidates for state office took part in the largest and most comprehensive candidate forum of the political season so far.
The event was hosted at the Carlson Center by AARP Alaska with the help of the League of Women Voters of the Tanana Valley. The forum largely focused on issues involved with aging, but touched on a slew of other issues important to voters.
Unlike other forums, each race was broken out into its own area, where audiences could focus on specific races for the allotted hour.
Candidates for the Interior’s five contested House races and three Senate races answered questions largely focusing on issues important to older Alaskans, including the state expansion of Medicaid, the state pension system, energy relief and supporting in-home care.
The event also included two candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives. Incumbent Rep. Don Young was not present, but candidates Democrat Sharon Cissna and Libertarian Jim McDermott took part.
AARP Alaska spokeswoman Ann Secrest said the event was designed to give voters an opportunity to know more about their candidates and ask questions.
“Our whole mission is we don’t endorse candidates. We don’t give money to any candidate. We just encourage our members to vote,” she said.
The News-Miner was unable to attend every forum. The following is a selection of the night’s highlights.
Senate District B
City of Fairbanks
Oil taxes sprung up during many of the debates, and it likely will be one of the dominate topics in the upcoming legislative session. Oil taxes were a key point in the forum between candidates for Senate District B, which pits Democratic Sen. Joe Paskvan against former Republican Sen. Pete Kelly and was one of the best-attended forums of the night.
Paskvan is a vocal critic of Gov. Sean Parnell’s tax plan and advocated for taxes that specifically rewarded new development in new oil fields. Kelly argues the state is in a decline resulting from faltering oil in the pipeline and says cutting taxes will help reverse the decline.
When asked about lowering energy costs to Alaskans on fixed incomes, Paskvan drew a connection between oil tax revenue and the services offered to Alaskans.
“I firmly believe that it’s my constitutional obligation to manage the resources for the maximum benefit for the people, and that includes a just tax structure,” he said. “Without revenues, there is no capacity to help the aged, the seniors, the disabled or anything else that the legislature is presented with annually.”
Kelly said Paskvan’s approach of offering a voucher to grant immediate relief to Alaskans was constitutionally flawed. He said the state should be focusing on natural gas trucking and bringing Healy Clean Coal Plant back online.
“The problem with the voucher program is that it wasn’t killed for partisan reasons; it was killed for constitutional reasons,” he said, without elaborating on the issues. “They wanted to make a big play.”
When asked whether he supported the expansion of Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act, Kelly said he doesn’t support its expansion, citing concerns that it will continue to grow and consume more
“Medicaid is a tough issues, but I don’t believe we need to expand it. I believe we need have it in place for the people who need it. I don’t think we don’t cut it,” he said. “But we should be careful that we don’t pour too much money into it that we create more dependents. ... It can’t be beyond scrutiny.”
Paskvan, on the other hand, emphatically supported the expansion of Medicaid to help more Alaskans.
“It’s exactly the kind of cost savings program they need so they’re not forced out of their own homes and into an assisted living center,” he said. “I believe it is important, and I don’t want to pull up the ladder at the time they’re most vulnerable.”
House District 4
The state’s retirement system, which in recent years switched to a 401(k)-style defined contribution system from a plan that would pay out defined benefits, was a critical topic in many of the forums. It’s an issue that is made more complex by Alaska opting out of Social Security.
In the race for House District 4, incumbent Democratic Rep. Scott Kawasaki said he supported a plan that gave people options. Defined contributions, he said, are flexible for people who need it but aren’t great at developing a long-lasting public workforce.
“We had a really good benefits package. Now the public service sector benefits is one of the worst in that nation; that’s got to stop,” he said. “In order to have folks who want to come up here be teachers, our firefighters and our policeman, we need to have something to attract them.”
Kawasaki’s challenger, Republican David Pruhs, said the state should be concerned about the unpaid liabilities created under the old defined benefits system.
“We must keep in place the defined contribution system. We have a 8 (billion) to 12 billion unpaid liability, it would be unwise to return to a system where we can’t audit it or rectify,” he said. “If there is ever a time where our state or state employees and teachers aren’t being justly compensated, that will be taken care of the bargaining table.”
House District 5
Chena Ridge, Chena Pump, Airport and Salcha
The issue of whether the state should return to a defined benefit plan also was a key difference between candidates for House District 5, Republican Pete Higgins and Democrat Dave Watts.
Watts argued the problem of the unfunded liability isn’t a problem inherent with the program, but with how it was managed. He said the proposed plan to return to defined benefits could be handled safely.
“What was wrong with it is that for 23 years the state of Alaska did not make the contributions required to make it solvent. If you’re talking about an unfunded liability, it’s an unpaid bill,” he said. “If managed properly, it can be made solvent.”
Senate District A
City of North Pole and North Fairbanks North Star Borough
The night wasn’t focused solely on issues related to older Alaskans. Questions asked by the audience related to younger Alaskans. Candidates for Senate District A, incumbent Sens. John Coghill, R-North Pole, and Joe Thomas, D-Fairbanks, sounded off on pre-kindergarten education.
“We’ve had some very useful and productive pre-K programs,” Thomas said. “In the long run, you’ll offset huge expenses, if you get people a good education. Getting parents more in tune and giving people a lot of different choices are extremely important.”
Coghill said he supported good pre-kindergarten programs, but said he was concerned about the state interfering with a family’s right to raise their children how they see fit.
“I’ve always said healthy families have made healthy communities,” he said. “Do we respect and honor the family, or do we demand that the government oversees the children at the expense of the parents. We should honor and respect the parents to help those children raise in any way.”
Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544 or follow him on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.