With the general election quickly approaching, the two candidates for House District 30 met Tuesday in a debate sponsored by the Homer Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center.
Before an audience of about 30 people, incumbent Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, and opponent Liz Diament, Democrat, addressed eight questions prepared by HCOC Executive Director Monte Davis, HCOC members and the evening’s moderator, Aaron Selbig, KBBI news director. The candidates were supplied copies of the questions on Friday.
“This is not a debate to see how well they do on their feet, but to try to get the best answers to the questions we’ve asked,” said Davis.
Each candidate was allowed a three-minute introduction. The candidates were given two minutes each to answer each question, with an additional one-minute follow-up per candidate. A coin toss determined Seaton would go first.
An area resident for more than 30 years, Seaton has served in the House of Representatives for the past 10 years. He owns rental properties in Homer and operates a fish tendering business out of Homer and Prince William Sound.
When first elected, Seaton said he committed to maintain contact with voters. He’s done that through a weekly newsletter. The numerous amendments he’s known for making to legislation as a result of feedback he receives from constituents has become known as “Seatonizing a bill,” he said.
Having served on the Fisheries, State Affairs, Education, and Health and Social Services committees, “all things of vital concerns here on the peninsula,” Seaton said he is currently co-chair of the Resources Committee.
“I’m running because I don’t feel my lifestyle is being represented,” said Diament, 33, who has lived on the southern Kenai Peninsula for the past nine years.
Diament is a self-described a young Alaskan struggling to make a living in rural Alaska. That is a constituency she believed is unrepresented in the Legislature.
“My opponent has been (in Juneau) for 10 years,” said Diament. “I feel that’s too long.”
The first question asked the candidates if they were comfortable with ACES, Alaska’s Clear and Equitable Share oil and gas production tax, or would they support change to a system based more on investment or production.
Believing ACES to be “a good system,” Diament said she believes the Legislature’s job is to bargain on behalf of Alaskans’ interests.
“This is our oil and we need to make sure Alaska gets its fair share,” she said.
Diament praised Seaton for voting against oil giveaways, but was “disappointed that our representative helped that bill out of committee and brought it to a floor vote.”
Seaton said how the state should tax oil has “been the top subject ever since I’ve been in the Legislature.” He explained “progressivity,” a term frequently used in discussions about oil company taxes that means as profit margins increase, so does the amount of taxes paid.
“This allows oil companies to reinvest in Alaska and all of that investment becomes a cost. It reduces their profit per barrel so it reduces their tax,” said Seaton. “It’s what lets them invest and quickly draw down their tax rate.”
Seaton said he was one of two House Republicans to vote against House Bill 110, the governor’s proposed changes to ACES. In answer to Diament’s question, he said the bill left the Resources Committee and proceeded to the Finance Committee where changes provided by the administration were to be made, “but they never did that.”
During the 2012 Special Session, the Legislature was to address HB 3001, an oil tax bill from the governor. Seaton provided Tuesday’s audience with a spreadsheet showing that legislation would have created a rise in state budget deficits of more than $1 billion by 2018. Gov. Parnell withdrew the legislation from the special session agenda.
The second question asked for candidates’ position on state funding of local projects like the Homer natural gas line.
Seaton said he had been heavily involved in getting state funding to bring natural gas from wells near Anchor Point to Homer and Kachemak City and had sponsored attempts for three years to make it happen. Gov. Sean Parnell vetoed the first two attempts.
“I believe that access to natural gas is something we should try to provide for all residents of Alaska,” said Seaton.
Alternative energies, such as wind and hydro, make sense for some areas of the state, “but natural gas is what can drive this state and keep the economics sound because it keeps the costs of living and doing business as a reasonable amount,” said Seaton. “Natural gas is an interim solution until we find full renewables across the state.”
Diament said she was glad funding had finally been approved for the southern peninsula gas line.
“The state should support, and does support, infrastructure development all over Alaska,” said Diament. “We are a young state and a lot of infrastructure sill needs to be developed. The state has a capital budget for this reason and it’s a matter of determining where that money is best spent. … As a state legislator I would advocate for funding for the energy and infrastructure projects that are important to our growing population.”
The third question asked for candidates’ thoughts on Cook Inlet gas exploration, what it means for the future of the Kenai Peninsula and Homer, and what role the state plays.
“I hope it means a diversified economy for our area, jobs for local people that are closer to home and a path to more affordable energy,” said Diament. “Sustainable, safe and responsible development of these resources is what we need, and I believe the state’s role is to make sure that these developments do provide jobs and increase the quality of life for our local population, as well as making sure the companies with these leases are following all environmental policies and are responsible corporations.”
Seaton said, “The boom in exploration and development in natural gas is really a positive thing for the Kenai Peninsula.”
Lacking big discoveries, Seaton said options such as importing natural gas or a pipeline off the North Slope are being considered, “but drilling here is the best, cheapest way we can find it locally. Not only does it provide local jobs and energy, but it’s the best way for us to go forth.”
The next question referred to a recently passed ballot proposition allowing municipalities to increase property tax exemptions to as much as $50,000 per property if ratified by voters. The candidates were asked where they stood on unfunded property tax exemptions.
Seaton said funded property tax exemptions were “very difficult for me,” but the ballot measure had been written to “allow local people to decide how they wanted to structure their own system.”
Diament also pointed to wording that left the final decision to municipalities and boroughs.
“I trust that communities can make the best assessment of their tax burdens and decide if they an afford this exemption,” she said.
Next came the topic of commercial and sport fishing interests. The candidates were asked how to find and strike a balance between the two.
Diament said fisheries resources belong to all Alaskans and should be managed for the benefit of the state. She said the balance lies in the science of fisheries management.
“We have a board of fish that is growing more political and less scientific with every appointment,” said Diament. “As a legislator, I believe my role should be to try and keep this board of fish from becoming one-sided politically.”
If elected, Diament said she would advocate for the reduction of by-catch quota for pollock trawlers and support sustainable fisheries through seasonal closures of the pollock fishery during salmon migration.
Seaton said commercial and sport-fishing allocations are something “we try to keep totally out of the Legislature because it becomes one legislator saying, ‘I want this fish,’ and someone else wants that one. It becomes a real problem.” Instead, allocation is handled by the Board of Fisheries, with board members appointed by the governor and confirmed or not confirmed by a joint session of the Legislature.
Seaton said he was very involved in efforts to reduce by-catch of at-sea fisheries, wrote letters on the subject of reducing halibut by-catch, and believed more work is needed on king salmon by-catch. Having just attended a scientific workshop looking at the king salmon issue, Seaton said it would be a “big struggle to make sure we have sustainable salmon for our areas.”
Pressed by Diament for his personal opinion of Pebble, Seaton said, “My view is we need to look at the data and proposals before we can make a decision. If we don’t, then we’re not responsible to constituents in analyzing what’s coming forward.”
Candidates were then asked to comment on the implementation of and the state administration’s opposition to the Emission Control Area and its fuel requirements. According to information provided by the chamber, the ECA will raise shipping costs, and, cause an 8 percent increase in Alaska’s cost of living.
Since the Legislature doesn’t represent the state in lawsuits, Seaton said, “I don’t have much to saw about that.”
Diament viewed the ECA’s 200-mile coastline perimeter as excessive.
“From what I’ve read, 50 miles would be sufficient,” she said.
The seventh question related to the Pick.Click.Give program’s $250,000 threshold for an audit, which is lower than the $500,000 threshold requirement for state and federal grants. Diament and Seaton were asked if they would support legislation raising the program requirement to match state and federal.
Recognizing audits are costly, Diament said, “When as an individual I give a portion of my PFD to support a nonprofit I want to know that that organization is financially solvent and has good practices.”
Seaton said the issue came to his attention by the Seward Senior Citizen Center. With a budget exceeding $250,000, and donations through Pick.Click.Give totaling $7,000, the organization was required to have an audit. However, it cost $9,000.
“All nonprofits are required to do federal reporting anyway, so people have that security that the IRS paperwork is there and filings are done,” said Seaton, calling the auditing requirement unnecessary.
The final topic of the evening dealt with litigation reform. Seaton and Diament were asked for their position on placing the financial burden of lost revenues, litigation fees, etc., on individuals or organizations that file lawsuits if the suit is not found in their favor.
Seaton said putting such a burden on someone trying to enforce state law by bringing it to court is “very chilling.”
“I’m opposed to this aspect,” said Seaton. “You have to make sure things aren’t frivolous, but this is not a good check and balance.”
Diament said that while she may support legislation preventing frivolous lawsuits, “This particular litigation reform is just a way to take away the ability of individuals to access the court system and gives more power to corporations and developers.”
The general election is Nov. 6. Early voting is underway at Homer City Hall.
McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.