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Redistricting pits incumbents against each other in Senate District A

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Posted: Saturday, October 27, 2012 11:57 pm | Updated: 11:52 am, Mon Jan 21, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — The race for Senate District A, a district created through the recent round of redistricting, pits two well-liked incumbents against each other.

Republican Sen. John Coghill and Democratic Sen. Joe Thomas will compete for the district that now covers North Pole, Eielson, Chena Hot Springs Road and much of the northern area of the Fairbanks North Star Borough.

Initially, Thomas and Sen. Joe Paskvan, D-Fairbanks, had been drawn into the same district. Coghill’s Senate district covered North Pole and East Fairbanks. After a court challenge, it was determined the city of Fairbanks is entitled to its own senator. Achieving that goal caused Thomas and Coghill to be put into the same district.

Both candidates have spent multiple terms in the Legislature and have a working relationship, but they have little in common, especially when it comes to the role of the Senate Bipartisan Working Group.

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Thomas entered the Senate in 2006 when he defeated Sen. Ralph Seekins by a 20-point margin. He followed up that win with a 15-point victory over Pete Higgins in 2010. Thomas is one of the top members of the Senate coalition and is a member of the Senate Finance Committee.

Through his position, he has increased funding for local capital projects large and small and obtained revenue sharing that helps local communities like Fox and Steese get a share of state revenue for community centers and other facilities to large projects like the proposed Susitna Dam as well as funding for the university and scores of road projects.

Coghill entered the Legislature as a member of the House in 1998. He was appointed to the Senate in 2009 and was uncontested for re-election in 2010. Once entering the Senate, Coghill was one of four GOP members who refused to join the coalition and is the current leader of the Republican minority.

His list of accomplishments, such as funding for projects in areas of his old district as well as work to improve conditions for emergency responders, is shorter because the minority lacks any guaranteed seats on important committees.

Not surprisingly, the candidates have different takes on the Senate coalition. Thomas says it’s responsible for unprecedented years of savings and increased investment in capital projects.

Coghill said he has no problems with a coalition but says the reason he’s not part of it is because it’s led by the group’s 10 Democrats. Those Democrats, he said, drive a more liberal policy than he is willing to endorse.

“The way they worked the last two years was you had the 10 Democrats, and the agreement is that nothing gets on the floor unless there’s a majority of this caucus,” Coghill said. “To me, that leaves more of the liberal element in charge of the agenda.”

If the coalition crumbles, Coghill will have a chance to get a hand into the direction of oil taxes. He said the previous approach, of looking at the tax’s impact on revenue, was flawed. He said lawmakers need to consider what the current tax structure does to the investment potential of Alaska.

“I think we have put ourselves in a very uncompetitive situation,” he said. “How do we do the best for Alaska and how do we do the best for the future of Alaska? I’m willing to shuffle the tax a little back. Some people call it a giveaway; I call it an investment.”

Coghill recognizes that the oil production decline, which started in the 1980s, isn’t solely a product of the current tax structure, but he said the present system has accelerated it.

“The oil decline is not just a function of taxes,” he said. “But if the taxes had been as high as they were at 2 million barrels, the decline probably would have been steeper.”

Thomas counters that the state and its lawmakers are constitutionally bound to ensure the state handles its resources as an owner.

“I continue to say that it’s a business transaction. We’re all here. We’re all in the oil business, and therefore, we need to make a business transaction,” he said. “You need to sit down and tell us what you’ll do differently.”

Thomas said many senators would have been more willing to cut taxes if oil industry representatives had been specific about what the companies planned to do if taxes were changed.

“It’s not that they guarantee us anything, but we should at least be able to talk about how it should increase the amount of production,” he said.

Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544 or follow him on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.

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