Candidate Q&A: Gary Stevens

Incumbent senator states views on budget, taxes, PFD and other issues

Incumbent Sen. Gary Stevens is making a bid to keep his seat in the Alaska Senate.

The longtime senator for District P — which covers Kasilof, Homer, the southern Kenai Peninsula, Kodiak, Cordova, Seldovia and a southern portion of Soldotna — defeated challenger John Cox in the August primary election in the Republican Party and now faces Alaska Independence Party candidate Greg Madden of Soldotna in the general election on Nov. 3.

An Alaska resident since 1970, Stevens is a retired educator who served in the House of Representatives from 2001-03 and who has served in the Alaska Senate since 2003. He’s been the chair of the legislative council committee since 2015 and also chairs the education committee.

In his latest 30-day report campaign disclosure report as of Oct. 3 filed with the Alaska Public Offices Commission, Stevens goes into the last leg of the election with income of $19, 300, $2,400 above his last report. That includes major donations of $500 from the Capital City Republicans in Juneau; $500 from Mark Palmer, President and CEO off OBI Seafoods, Fall City, Washington; and $500 from the Association of General Contractors Political Action Committee, Anchorage. Stevens did not report any expenditures for the period.

In his own biography, Stevens writes:

“Sen. Gary Stevens serves District P in the Legislature, which encompasses Kodiak Island, Homer, Cordova and numerous coastal communities. He served for four years as President of the Alaska State Senate and was the National Chairman of the Council of State Governments. Currently, Senator Stevens chairs the Senate Education Committee and the Legislative Council and serves on the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee.

“Before entering state office, Stevens served in local government for 13 years as Mayor of the City of Kodiak; Mayor of the Kodiak Island Borough; and President of the Kodiak Island Borough Board of Education and is a past District Governor for Rotary International.

“Stevens and Rita have been married for over 47 years and have three children, Anna, Matthew, and Natalie; and two granddaughters, Isadora and Maxine. Born in McMinnville, Oregon, he has lived in Alaska for over 40 years.”

Question: What made you want to run again for the Alaska Senate again?

Answer: I am running for reelection to the Senate because there are several issues I have been working on in fisheries, education and the operating budget that need completion. My experience in the legislature and Senate leadership has given me a perspective few have. I work well with other legislators to accomplish the important tasks needed during such difficult times. Because of COVID this will be a shortened session, so it is important we hit the ground running, move swiftly through the budget process, and keep legislation to the minimum while protecting legislators and staff from the virus. As chairman of the Joint Legislative Council, it is my responsibility to insure the State Capitol is safe with testing, deep cleaning, and air handling.

Q: Other than issues caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, what do you see as the three biggest issues currently facing the state of Alaska?

A: Alaska has been fortunate in our low incidence and response to the pandemic, but it appears as if things can get worse. K-12 and the university have adapted responsibly making wise decisions. We must concentrate on jobs and bringing back our economy safely. The legislature efficiently moved federal funds to the governor’s office. We must now make sure those monies are distributed quickly while insuring fraud is prosecuted.

Other than the pandemic, the three biggest issues facing the state are the economy, education, and the budget. No surprise there.

We must open our economy as quickly as possible while maintaining public health. That means assisting local businesses in reopening and recovering. The federal government has been generous, but the state also has responsibility. We know some businesses may never be able to reopen. We need to ramp up our loan programs to assist business and their employees.

In gisheries, we need to insure we are competitive on the world stage. I will continue working on my bill, SB 130, on added value tax credits for the industry. These would be used so that processors are able to purchase new equipment and product lines to increase the value of both pollock and cod. This will impact everyone in the industry, fishermen and processors.

In Education, we still have work to do on bills I introduced as chairman of Senate Education Committee to insure students receive substantive college credit while in high school for higher education classes and bring tribal entities more closely into the K-12 system. We must continue to improve our teleconferencing and connectedness, training our teachers to use distance education platforms to insure all students have access to online education. We must insist the University ramp-up its teacher education program so that more of our teachers are home grown, fill desperately needed positions, and put well-trained Alaskans to work.

Q: What is your position/philosophy on how to balance a state budget?

A: A balanced budget is the one thing required of the Legislature by our Constitution. It will not to be easy due to decreased oil revenues, reduced savings, and budgetary needs like education, health and social services, and police protection. This legislature will have to concentrate on negotiating a budget in as limited a time as possible. I am urging a 60-day expedited session emphasizing the budget. We need to solve the budget problem at hand, not push decisions to future legislatures or make generations to come pay for our inability to balance a budget.

Negotiating a balanced budget will be extremely challenging. But we can do it even though times are difficult. We have reduced the budget considerably over the past several years and must continue doing so. All agencies and departments will be closely scrutinized, and each asked to submit a reduced budget. Every legislator will be involved in this process through budget sub-committees with firm direction to find reductions. The Permanent Fund POMV (Percent of Market Value) plan is now providing more revenue to the state than oil taxes. If we do not draw more than 5%, we will see the Permanent Fund continue to flourish providing necessary funds to inflation proof the Fund, provide a Permanent Fund Dividend (PFD) and assist in funding our operating budget well into the future.

Q: Do you support a full Permanent Fund Dividend as set in the 1986 formula?

A: I know the full PFD is the elephant in the room. Several candidates are promising a $3,000 PFD with no idea how to pay for it and with limited math skills. That would reduce our revenues by almost $2 billion and would end in overdrawing the Permanent Fund to the detriment of all Alaskans. Remember we are not receiving the revenues from oil that we used to. When I was Senate President, 90% of our revenues were from oil. Now they are around 30%. That should show you the sorry state our revenues are in. After reducing our budget as much as we can, I will see that we fund state government and deliver a reasonable PFD. I know this is not popular and some candidates are trying to buy your vote by promising the impossible. Promising everything including a full PFD and stable state services is just not realistic. Those who promise you a $3,000 PFD will have a sad awakening if they are elected. You cannot beat basic math which wins all the time. I know you realize that cost shifting to local governments just increases the tax burden in your community which you will then be asked to pay for out of another pocket. I will do my best to keep the administration from cost shifting the state budget to local communities.

Q: Which state departments or areas of state spending, if any, do you see as being able to be cut in the next budget cycle? Please be specific.

A: I believe the time has come for every state agency and department to take a reduction with no exceptions. I would propose a 3 to 5% budget reduction across the board. We have discussed such draconian actions in the past to no avail. It is now time to implement and impact every budget of every agency in the state. All items in the budget have their defenders and sound arguments, however, this is one way to reduce the budget by hundreds of millions of dollars. It is now time.

Q: What is your stance on introducing a statewide tax to Alaska (either an income tax or a sales tax)?

A: The problem with any major tax such as income or sales is that the governor has the power to veto any such legislation. The governor has said he will use his veto pen to achieve that end. Before the Legislature spends enormous time and effort on devising a plan, we must insure the governor will support and not veto it. Should he agree to that, then we need an honest and insightful public discussion on the pros and cons, understanding that any implementation will take a couple of years after passage. This issue should begin with the governor introducing such a bill or at least agreeing not to veto a legislative bill.

Q: How do you plan to help the House and Senate achieve cooperation when it comes to passing a budget?

A: I have spent many years in leadership positions, working across the aisle and with the House of Representatives. I believe in consensus building, in bringing most members to reasoned conclusions. All legislators realize after being elected that in a representative democracy it’s not enough to have a great idea. You must be able to work with others, convince them of the wisdom of your ideas, be prepared for your bills to be altered along the way, and get a majority consensus from both bodies and the Administration. We have achieved cooperation in the past when legislators arrive at a negotiated budget. It is not easy and demands cooperation and compromises, but that is what legislating is all about.

Q: What is your position on the proposed Pebble Mine project?

A: I am opposed to the Pebble Mine. I have been from the beginning when Bristol Bay was in my senate district. It no longer is, but many of my constituents are involved in the Bristol Bay salmon industry. I attended an EPA hearing in Dillingham and heard dozens of local citizens, some in tears, describe the impact of the proposed mine on their families, culture, and communities. It is so easy for mistakes to occur. Nobody can restore what is lost. The president of Anglo American told me if they caused any problems, they would pay for it. Paying for the loss of these natural salmon runs is not enough and restoration is unlikely. The company said they would guarantee no destruction in perpetuity. No corporation has been around that long. Any leakage from storage facilities or damage to the environment has the potential of destroying the greatest salmon producing streams left in the world. We cannot take that chance. As Sen. Ted Stevens said, it is “the wrong mine in the wrong place.”

Q: What is your favorite book?

A: My favorite book is Joseph Heller’s “Catch 22,” the funniest satire ever. I read it before entering the military, where I served as an Army Intelligence Officer. It captures the bureaucracy of military life, and reminds us of all we take for granted, and should not at our own peril. It is one of the few books I have reread. When I left the Army after three years, I was more patriotic than when I entered partly because of this book, its deadly seriousness, heartfelt sadness, and laugh out loud humor. It is time to read it again.