Join the Redoubt Reporter for a candidate debate forum with candidates for Senate Districts N and O and 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 23, at Triumvirate Theatre in the Peninsula Center Mall in Soldotna. Or listen live at KDLL 91.9 FM or KBBI 890 AM, or online at http://www.kbbi.org.
By Jenny Neyman
In a primary election, when candidates of the same political persuasion — Republican vs. Republican in the case of the races for the House and Senate seats representing the Kenai Peninsula — square off, differences could be expected to be a matter of splitting hairs, yet this year many races are far more divergent than that. Some challengers do, indeed, agree on much more than not — such as candidates for House District 29. While in races for House District 30 and Senate District O, candidates may both be Republicans, but that’s about where their similarities end.
Regardless, voters’ job is still the same, and universal whether they lean Democrat, Republican or nonparty-affiliated.
“There’s a lot of things that are important to all of us, Mr. (Kurt) Olson and myself and everybody in the public, as well, but I think where we need to make the distinction is in the approach we’re going to take in Juneau,” said Gary Knopp, running against incumbent Rep. Olson for House District 29, covering the Kenai-Soldotna area. “Who will be a little more proactive, who will work the hardest and what issues are important to each candidate? But the most important thing, and it’s probably more important than most people realize, is the opportunity to get out and vote. Every single vote counts.”
With the redrawing of district boundaries following the 2010 census, all seats representing the Kenai Peninsula in the state Legislature are up for election this year, and many will be determined in the Aug. 28 primary, since there were not candidates of other parties registered for the general election in November.
That means the choices voters make Tuesday will determine the outcome of most of these races, and there are many substantive issues to consider.
House District 29, Kenai-Soldotna
Incumbent Rep. Kurt Olson, Republican, of Soldotna, vs. Gary Knopp, Republican, of Kenai, current president of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly
Where do you stand on recent proposals regarding oil taxes? How should the state incentivize industry exploration, development and production when ensuring revenue for Alaska?
Olson voted against Alaska’s Clear and Equitable Share tax structure. He cited an example in Alberta, Canada, that a new tax structure the Alberta government passed had a negative effect on industry activities.
“They saw their companies leaving because they were no longer competitive. They took about a year and a half and went back to something more reasonable and the companies are coming back and developing the tar sands,” Olson said. He doesn’t want Alaska to lose out in competition with other oil-producing regions on the continent, such as Alberta, North Dakota and the Gulf of Mexico states.
“We have one of the highest tax regimes in the world. Their business climate is much more encouraging then ours,” he said.
Knopp said he’d need to study the issue closely before commenting on specific proposals, such as ACES, but did say that industry opposition to taxes is nothing new and cautions against making too many concessions that might hurt the state.
“The industry has consistently, in my 35 years here, lobbied against taxes as too high. So if in fact they are too high then we need to adjust them. On the other hand, of the $12 billion (state) budget this year, 92 percent of that is funded by taxes on industry, but we have to differentiate between revenues due to royalties due to the state versus taxes,” Knopp said.
“I’m leaning toward incentives for production. Exploration costs, development costs are expensive. I can see incentives for that type of product. I can see incentives moving production into the line. (But) I can tell you if you reduce the taxes by $2 billion a year you gotta connect the dots because it takes a hit and trickles right down to municipalities, so you want to look at it really close.”
Where do you stand on constructing a natural-gas pipeline in the state? What should the state’s role be in that project?
Knopp supports the state having a direct financial role in getting an instate gas line built, so as to serve areas, such as Fairbanks and Delta Junction, suffering from high energy costs as they lack access to more-affordable natural gas. Knopp said an instate line could come from the North Slope with spur lines to Fairbanks and other areas, and ultimately go to Beluga on the west side of Cook Inlet and to tidewater on the east side, where it could be used in industrial plants in Nikiski and turned into LNG to be exported as well as transported by barge to rural Bush communities for residential use.
“I think we should build an instate gas line. I think we need to accept the fact that it will be subsidized, I think we should subsidize it,” Knopp said. “I think it’s doable, I think we should do it for our people and I think if we build it, industry will finally come to it.”
Let industry concentrate on a large-diameter line to get Alaska’s gas to market, if they find it financially viable, but Alaska should make sure its citizens are taken care of.
“I think there’s a market for gas and everybody wants to have an open season (for a large-diameter line), and that’s fine for producers. But unless there’s a profit in it you’ll never see producers build an instate gas line to service our residents. It’s two different issues. If there’s a market for gas, you will see the big three (oil companies operating in the state) come together and build a pipeline,” he said.
Olson said that progress toward a large-diameter line currently is hamstrung by the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act, which granted applicant TransCanada funds to pursue its plan to construct a line to get North Slope gas to markets in Canada and the Lower 48. That sort of a line doesn’t pencil out economically, Olson said. BP and ConocoPhillips already came to that conclusion in backing down from their plan to build a gas line, he said.
“TransCanada will come to that conclusion when they finish spending the rest of their money. At that point in time we won’t be limited to have a billion cubic feet a day coming down a small diameter line, we’ll be able to build a bigger line. We’ll be able to build whatever the market will bear, because, ultimately it’s going to be a market-driven pipeline. We’re going to have to have somebody that’s buying that gas at a reasonable price,” he said.
Do you support Ballot Measure 2, a ballot initiative to reinstate a Coastal Zone Management process in the state?
Knopp will vote against Ballot Measure 2. He was much more favorable to the old process that sunsetted when the Legislature couldn’t come to agreement over revamping and renewing it in the 2010 and 2011 sessions. The new plan proposed in the ballot initiative is too nebulous and too detrimental to development, he said.
“The old plan was considerably better than what’s out there now. What I would support with Coastal Zone Management is if we were really talking about developments off our coast. I would support that wholeheartedly. But when you start bringing that level of bureaucracy and expense to organizations trying to build anything (I don’t support it),” he said,
He said that the new plan lacks definition. For instance, how close to shore does a community have to be to be considered coastal? As an example, he said that Wal-Mart in Kenai had to go through a 60-day coastal zone review process.
“I don’t think that type of scrutiny on them types of projects needs to happen. If it just applied to offshore activities, I’d support it wholeheartedly,” he said.
Olson said that he supported extending the old Coastal Zone Management program, but that amendments made in the Senate proved a stumbling block in the House and derailed passage. He does not support the Ballot Measure 2.
“I will be right next to Gary voting no on it in the current form. The current form makes no sense. It doesn’t have definitions, it has a lot of blank spaces that will be done after the fact. I would vote again to extend the old program,” he said.
Where do you stand on the proposed Pebble Mine? What do you make of the recently released EPA report concluding that a large-scale mining operation in the Bristol Bay watershed would be damaging to miles of salmon streams?
Olson takes the wait-and-see approach.
“That’s easy, I have no position on it and I won’t have a position on it until all of the assessments are completed. I think at this point in time it’s premature to say it’s a good plan or a bad plan because we don’t have all the information at this point in time,” he said.
Knopp agreed that he wants to see Pebble submit a proposal to the state before he takes a stance on it.
“There’s no doubt it’s going to upset the landscape over there, but like Mr. Olson I want to see it go through the permit and review process before I take a position,” he said.
However, he did cite some concerns.
“But even if it did pass the review process I think what I am favorable to is if it were done in small stages, small increments, and reclaim it along the way. Even if all the agencies and permitting process did say (to go ahead), I’m not sure I’d ever be 100 percent comfortable with it,” he said.
What role should the state take in supporting renewable energy projects?
Knopp supports the state’s Alaska Energy Authority, which grants funding for research and development of renewable energy projects in the state, but doesn’t thing the state should get into building and operating projects of its own.
“I think the state’s role should be to continue to support, to incentivize energy companies who are in the business of developing that technology and selling that energy. I am in favor of supporting them efforts. I am not in favor of a state agency trying to get into renewable energies,” he said.
Olson also supports incentivizing research and development of renewable energy projects, particularly geothermal and tidal in the Cook Inlet region.
“I think those are probably my top two picks because if we do get them online they will be 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. I’d like to see us spend more on geothermal and tidal because they’re two assets we do have in this area,’ he said.
Where do you stand on the federal Affordable Health Care Act and how should the state go forward with health care reform?
Knopp said he doesn’t like the overhaul of the health care system and particularly opposes the federal mandates that are part of the law.
Olson said he supports some provisions of the law, such as allowing kids to stay on their parents’ insurance well into their 20s, but doesn’t yet know what effect the dictates of the law will have on Alaska.
Where do you stand on education funding?
Olson said he’s proud to have supported the overhaul of the education funding system in the Legislature, which resulted in a far more equitable shake of state funding for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. Any further substantive changes, such as meeting inflationary increases since 2010, would have to be considered carefully.
“I think any increases are going to have to be justified at this point in time. We’ll wait to see what they (school districts) come to us with,” Olson said.
He does intend to continue to work toward getting the education funding budget squared away quickly in the Legislature, so districts can plan their budget in a timely manner and not have to lay employees off — temporarily or permanently — because they don’t yet know if there will be money to pay them.
“One of my main goals is to make sure we don’t have pink slips going out every year because the budget hasn’t been finalized. I think that needs to be one of our highest priorities, is we don’t lose our skilled workforce, especially the newer ones,” he said.
He did lament the decrease in vocational education over the years and wants to see more accountability in education, but lauded the local KPBSD.
“I think we’re blessed with a district that’s doing much better than a good portion of the state,” he said.
Knopp said he believes the Legislature is currently caught up on school funding.
“At this time I wouldn’t support another increase to the base student allocation (the main, per-pupil funding mechanism allocating state funds to districts),” he said. “But I would consider special appropriations for some of the uncontrollable costs — health care, transportation, insurance.”
What sets you apart from your opponent?
Olson said his experience serving on the Labor and Commerce Committee gives him a stronger background on those issues, as well as small business and union issues.
“I have the ability to build a consensus on most of the issues I’m involved in and that has made me really successful in getting my legislation through,” he said.
Knopp said that his experience on the assembly and work as a general contractor puts him in touch with a wide range of people and has familiarized him with their issues of concern.
“I think the big difference is I’m out in the public every singe day dealing with a lot of people, hearing a lot of issues. … I think I’m in touch with the issues of the people and what’s going on, and I think, getting to Juneau, I’m going to take some of them issues there and address them,” he said.
“We probably don’t differ so much on issues, I think where voters will find a clear distinction is on how we pursue the issues and what issues are of interest to us. Small business, heavy-handedness of (governmental) departments, trying to make life a little easier for us, that’s my issues,” Knopp said.
“No matter who you vote for on the 28th, I would encourage all of you to vote,” Olson said. “I think we agree on more issues than we disagree, and I look forward to the possibility of serving again. I would encourage you to look at everything we put out. And, I encourage you, whether you vote for Gary or you vote for me, just so you vote. If you vote, you’re entitled to whine,” Olson said.