On October 20th local candidates for the Denali Borough Assembly and the Alaska House and Senate came together for a candidate forum at Tri-Valley School in Healy. Students from Tri Valley’s high school government class hosted the event, as they have for several years. The format of the forum included an initial question and answer session based on questions developed by the students. In this post are the backgrounds, questions, and responses from state legislative candidates.
The current incumbent from Senate District D, Joe Thomas, Democrat, was present, while Republican challenger Pete Higgins was unable to attend. The current incumbent from House District 8, David Guttenberg, Democrat, was present, as well as challenger Dave Talerico, Republican. Joe Thomas was born in Fairbanks and has represented Senate District D since 1996. He has served on a number of committees, both as a member and as Chair. He has worked on a number of issues affecting Interior Alaska, including advancing the Susitna Dam project and the natural gas line. He expressed a desire to continue working on these issues.
David Guttenberg has lived in Fairbanks for 40 years and has represented House District 8 since 2003. He considers his office a great responsibility. He feels that it is Alaska’s responsibility to make sure that Alaska’s resources benefit Alaska, pointing out that the Alyeska pipeline runs through Fairbanks, yet Fairbanks still sees some of the highest oil and gas prices in the nation.
Dave Talerico has lived in Healy for 41 years, and has served as the Denali Borough Mayor since 2002. He pointed out that Alaska’s oil wealth has been beneficial to Alaskans, but that there are concerns on the horizon that need to be addressed. He feels that it is the Legislature’s responsibility to diversify our economy, including non-petroleum resources, tourism, fisheries, and precious metals. He stated that unless we diversify and develop these resources responsibly we will be looking at rough times.
Candidates were asked what they thought the most important short and long-term goals were for Alaska. All three candidates agreed that energy and the cost of energy were important. Talerico noted that high energy costs can have an enormous impact on low-income residents, while Thomas pointed out that if diverse energy developments are not pursued we will continue to see an increase in the cost of energy. Guttenberg and Thomas brought up education, while Talerico pointed out that domestic violence and suicide in the state are major problems and the state needs to provide tools to address them.
When asked how they will represent small communities Guttenberg and Thomas indicated that listening to constituents was a way to figure out a community’s needs, and pointed out that the districts they have served include small communities within the larger communities. Talerico stressed that it was important to distinguish what is truly a need, and noted that some schools are getting new turf on their playing fields, while the Shaktoolik School has no heat. Guttenberg agreed that it is important to prioritize the needs once you have identified them.
Students asked what infrastructure improvements the candidates would support. Thomas and Guttenberg stated that the state is in good shape financially, making it a good time to develop infrastructure. Thomas and Guttenberg support Susitna Dam development as an opportunity to diversify energy supply. Guttenberg also pointed to the gas pipeline as an important infrastructure development, as well as protecting state lands such as the proposed Stampede State Recreation Area. Talerico pointed to the Port MacKenzie rail extension as a means to get access to another deep water port with rail access to the Interior. He suggested that this is a relatively short-term project, with long-term benefits.
When asked about the potential to re-direct Permanent Fund monies to infrastructure needs the candidates had differing opinions. Talerico said that it would be very unpopular with voters, so unlikely, while Guttenberg believed that it was not legally possible. Thomas suggested that voters might be interested in investing Permanent Fund money into infrastructure needs if it meant lower energy costs.
Candidates were asked what program they would increase funding for, and which program they would cut. Guttenberg said that Pre-K programs and needs-based scholarships for higher education were both important. Thomas agreed that Pre-K education is very important, and stated that he had worked with the state to reduce mandatory school attendance age from seven to six. Talerico would promote disability programs around the state, noting that early intervention was crucial for children with disabilities and that programs such as Access Alaska could use more funding. Cuts were a bit more difficult for the candidates to identify. All agreed that the best solution would be tightening the budget across the board.
Students asked what tools the state can provide schools to help them succeed. Thomas pointed to technology and the need for instructors. Guttenberg added that not all students are traditional learners, and their needs should be addressed, while at the same time the state needs to ensure that students come to school ready to learn…secure, well-fed and well-rested. Talerico spoke about the poor graduation rate in Alaska, and stated that high school students need incentives to go to school. He also pointed to the success of Expeditionary Learning in the Denali Borough School District, and said that successful programs should be expanded into other districts where they would be effective.
When questioned about the Healy Clean Coal Plant, candidates agreed that there has been a large amount of money put into the project, and that it should move forward. Guttenberg said that burning coal was cleaner than burning petroleum products, as is done in Fairbanks. Talerico added that renewable power, such as the Susitna Dam and the Eva Creek Wind Farm offer good potential for energy development, and that we should focus on feeding the energy grid.
A community member questioned why it seemed that the state must deplete a resource (referring to lowered pipeline production) before moving on to another resource. The candidates responded that the state is pursuing the various energy projects mentioned, while Thomas added that the Alaska Energy Authority has compiled a report on Alaska’s energy resources, including renewables, providing a roadmap for future potential energy development.