Due to the state’s recent redistricting, which changed legislative boundaries throughout Alaska, two incumbent Southeast Alaska senators are vying for the same seat.
Both senators were in Ketchikan on Wednesday, and sat down to talk with KRBD about their experience and accomplishments in the state Senate.
Republican Sen. Bert Stedman of Sitka and Democratic Sen. Albert Kookesh of Angoon are competing for the new Senate District Q seat, but you wouldn’t know it from the way they talk about each other.
The two have served together in Alaska’s Senate for the past eight years. They also both belong to the Senate bipartisan coalition, which includes Democrats and Republicans.
During a congenial candidate forum broadcast live to throughout the new Senate District, the two senators focused on what they’ve done, rather than what their opponent has or hasn’t done.
Stedman, a nine-year state Senator, said it’s up to the voters to decide which of the two will best serve the district’s needs.
“We can talk tonight about some of the initiatives, some of the projects, our records – what we’ve done. And I’m looking forward to that conversation,” he said. “I’ve got a nine-year record within the Senate, and six years as cochair of the Senate Finance Committee, in charge of all the legislation that comes through the Senate with any appropriation with it at all, goes to the Senate Finance Committee, and then the capital budgets.”
Kookesh said that if he wins the Nov. 6th election, he’ll go from representing 129 far-flung communities to just those in Southeast Alaska’s new Senate district. He said he looks forward to focusing on the needs of Southeast.
Kookesh has served 16 years in the Legislature, eight each in the House and Senate. He said he and Stedman agree on many issues, including opposition to Gov. Sean Parnell’s oil tax plan.
“We’ve served together and helped make decisions in different parts of the Senate corridors in the Legislature, and we’ve kind of marched along the same path for a couple of years now, so it’s going to be hard to find differences,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of agreements behind the Senate coalition we formed, with 10 Democrats and six Republicans, and we’ve done a very good job.”
Kookesh said the coalition changed the atmosphere in Juneau, but notes that the governor isn’t happy with the bipartisan Senate group.
Both candidates talked about the oil tax plan. Stedman said the tax structure clearly is broken and needs to be fixed.
“But what’s also clear to be is that the governor’s HB110 is so far off the mark, it’s ridiculous and should never have been filed,” he said.
Stedman said that while the oil companies’ ability to make profit should be considered, they’re making plenty of money in Alaska, and benefit from various credits that aren’t generally discussed.
“You don’t hear people talking about the incentives we have imbedded in the tax structure,” he said. “All they want to do is lower the tax rate and keep the incentives, and quite frankly, if we had adopted the governor’s bill – again, I think it was a breach of his fiduciary duty as the governor of the State of Alaska to put forward a bill that egregious and then defend it, it’s even worse. And not be able to explain it to the satisfaction of vitually the entire state.”
Kookesh said it isn’t clear that the governor’s proposed plan would result in increased exploration or production.
“The question is whether or not we want to change oil taxes to make sure that big oil spends more money in Alaska,” he said. “Well, we’re willing to give the incentives, but we weren’t able to get an answer from the oil companies that said they would do it one way or another. ‘Are you willing to spend some money in Alaska for new production?’ We couldn’t get an answer from them and the governor continued to push us on it.”
Kookesh called House Bill 110 a $2 billion giveaway. He, too, said oil companies should be considered, but they aren’t the only players.
“I don’t want to do anything that’s going to benefit the oil companies only,” he said. “Bert is absolutely right. There’s a three-way partnership in this thing, and Alaska has to benefit from it. It can’t just be a one-way street.”
The three partners are the oil companies, and the state and federal governments.
Wednesday’s candidate forum was a live call-in program, and a caller from Haines wanted to know each senator’s stance on Alaska Power and Telephone’s Connelly Lake hydroelectric project. There has been some opposition to that project, with concerns raised over the potential effect on salmon streams.
Kookesh said he always supports hydroelectric projects in Southeast Alaska.
“I don’t think there’s a hydro project I don’t like. I think everybody in Southeast Alaska has to be on a hydro system eventually if they have a hydro potential near them,” he said.
Stedman said he works for projects that communities tell him they want. Generally, though, he supports hydroelectric projects.
“When I was up in Haines last time, what I found kind of curious is why doesn’t Haines own their own hydro generation like Sitka, Ketchikan, Wrangell and Petersburg do? And thereby control their energy?” he said. “I’ll have to try to figure out where Haines, the community is. I’d like to see the project go forward, and several others quite frankly, in Southeast. That’s only one of them, in the northern end.”
In response to a listener’s question regarding funding of state parks, Stedman said that while he supports Alaska State Parks, he’s hesitant to increase the system’s presence in Southeast.
“I frankly believe that most of Southeast is already a park,” he said. “I’m a little hesitant to create more parks unless there’s a really good reason to do so. The federal government pretty much has the Tongass (National Forest) pretty much locked up, and we’re trying to struggle with that issue.”
Kookesh said he supports the state park system.
“I’m supportive of us having as many parks in Alaska as we can,” he said. “I’m supportive of making sure we have budgets to make sure that those parks survive and do well. I like the idea of parks, because people can share the use of it, and there can be multi-purpose use of them.”
Another listener asked about expanding education funding for preschools, which each senator said he supports. Stedman, however, expressed concern about the potential budget impact of such a program.
Also on the education topic, Kookesh and Stedman say they support forward funding for schools.
Regarding Ketchikan’s hopes for improved access to Gravina Island, Kookesh said a bridge is the only way to truly access it, but it’s not clear how that will happen without another earmark.
Stedman said the ball remains in the state Department of Transportation’s court for now. He said he’s concerned that in the end, DOT will recommend more ferries.
“The state of Alaska can afford to build a bridge,” he said. “There’s about $80 million still sloshing around waiting for the construction of the bridge. There’s $35 million that’s been expensed on a road. That $35 million might have to be returned if the bridge isn’t built. So we just have to wait and see what DOT’s going to do. I personally think they’ve been waiting for me to not be the chairman of the Finance Committee to terminate the bridge project.”
A caller asked about infrastructure. Both senators expressed support for improving basic infrastructure for communities. Kookesh said many people in Alaska still live without sewer or water service.
“I really believe the State of Alaska needs to get into it. It has to take the time to look at the budget, to make sure we can do something for those communities that have no water and use honey buckets,” he said. “The governor said years ago, ‘We’re going to put the honey bucket in the museum,’ well, it hasn’t happened. We still have a lot of infrastructure needs out there. We recognize that. We look at the money we have available, and we use as much as we can on infrastructure. If you look at the budget for the last couple of years, you’ll see a lot of infrastructure money into that budget, including federal dollars. We’ve matched a lot of federal dollars specifically for infrastructure.”
The new Senate District Q seat will be decided in the upcoming general election, set this year for Tuesday, Nov. 6.