FAIRBANKS — Energy, energy and more energy.
The high cost of energy and heating was the topic of choice during the first Republican candidate forum held Wednesday night for the North Pole House seat, which was left empty after Rep. Tammie Wilson was drawn out of the strongly Republican district in the most recent redistricting round.
Candidates Lynette Bergh, Paul Brown and Dave Gardner each took turns answering five pre-selected questions regarding energy, pipelines, their priorities, the state’s budget and why they are the best candidate. North Pole Mayor Doug Isaacson, who has also filed to run for the seat, was traveling and was not included in the forum.
While each candidate gave his or her answers the other candidates were kept in a separate room, but that didn’t stop their answers from sounding similar. Energy prices and the high cost of heating, as well as the need for the Interior delegation to unite behind one energy project, were front-and-center at the debate, with only minor differences between each candidate.
Bergh, the former president of Fairbanks Republican Women and legislative aide for a number of lawmakers in Juneau, said she was the best choice to solve the problem because she could draw on a deep pool of experience as well as a strong connection to the community.
“The Interior Delegation needs to work together to have some sort of energy plan in the short-term, mid-term and long-term,” she said. “We have a real issue here in North Pole. We have serious, serious concerns. … I have worked in the Legislature and I see how these things work as a group or don’t work as a group. We’ve talked about these plans for years. We need to have a person like me go to Juneau to be a consensus builder”
Bergh has already been going door-to-door to talk to residents in her district, a move similar to the re-election strategy of Tammie Wilson, who cruised to re-election by a 50-point margin in the general election.
Brown, the operations manager of the Santa Claus House and second-generation Alaskan, said he’s sick and tired of hearing the ongoing discussions about building a natural gas pipeline and not seeing any action being taken.
“My frustration is as a second generation Alaskan is I’ve seen this pain and been through this pain before, it seems like we’re having these cycles of up and down. We get through a painful point and all of the sudden we have a knee-jerk reaction,” he said. “My frustration is that we’ve been been having these conversations for 40 years, we’ve had 40 years of oil wealth that we could have built infrastructure.”
Gardner, who is vice president of marketing and member services for Golden Valley Electric Association, also hit on energy as the focal point of many of the Interior’s issues. He said he’s confident a partial solution is in the works through GVEA’s joint liquified natural gas trucking project with Flint Hills, and said it’s important that the state continue to work with near-term solutions like home weatherization and energy efficiency projects.
“Affordable energy is a priority but we’re looking at four winters away before that an happen,” he said. “We need ways to incentivize conservation and retrofitting the homes to conserve energy. That’s how we can benefit this winter.”
Of the few other issues to come up during the forum, Brown struck on what he sees as an out-of-control state budget. He said the declining price of oil could wreak havoc on the state’s budget and that the state should look at diversifying its economy and decreasing its spending.
“The cost of energy is our number one concern, but an equally major issue is the state spending levels are unsustainable,” he said. “We could be looking at deficit spending this fiscal year, that’s a major concern. If that deficit continues, we’re looking at spending through the constitutional budget reserve and the statutory budget reserve by 2020. That’s a major concern for me as a second generation and having these young children, I would like them to have jobs and grow up in this community.”
Both Brown and Gardner said Eielson was a big priority for them. Brown said now that the Congressional delegation has blocked the most recent closure attempt, the state should look at what it can do to lower the cost to operate the base and extend its mission. Gardner said the state should continue to support the base for the benefit of the Interior.
“Keeping that base is active is a priority, whether it’s an active military base or, what other communities have done, an active industrial facility,” he said, “Making sure we utilize that facility and the infrastructure for the benefit of the Interior is a priority to the state.”
Bergh, when asked about her other priorities, said energy came in at every spot. She said everything else will come together once affordable electricity and heating come to the Interior.
“Once we have energy, we can once again have economic development in our area,” she said. “I’ve talked to people. I have 600 homes, 1,000 residents telling me ‘I can’t go to Pagoda anymore because I’ve paid my fuel bill and my electric bill and I don’t have 5 cents left to do any luxury things like going out to eat.’ This is unconscionable.”
The four candidates, including Isaacson, are expected to face off in a debate closer to the August 28 primary elections.
Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544 or follow him on Twitter at @FDNMpolitics.