Legislators get an earful

Wednesday, March 21, 2012 - 20:00
Town hall meeting with delegation brings out plenty of issues
Flanked by her colleagues in the Legislature, Sen. Cathy Giessel gestures while speaking to the crowd during a town hall meeting held Saturday, March 17, in Eagle River. All six members of the Chugiak-Eagle River delegation attending the meeting, including Sen. Charlie Huggins, Sen. Fred Dyson, Rep. Bill Stoltze, Rep. Anna Fairclough and Rep. Dan Saddler.

About three dozen people packed the meeting room at the Eagle River Town Center for a town hall meeting with area legislators on Saturday, March 17.

The meeting was attended by all six area legislators, including Representatives Bill Stoltze, Dan Saddler and Anna Fairclough and Senators Fred Dyson, Cathy Giessel and Charlie Huggins. In two hours, the delegation heard plenty from their constituents about what needs to be done during the current legislative session.

“If we don’t do the right thing on oil and gas, it’s going to be a disaster,” said Bonnie Nelson, who urged legislators to come up with a deal on oil taxes that will both satisfy producers’ need for stability and also make sure Alaskans don’t give up too much in tax revenues.

“Of course we want the oil companies to have a fair shake, but we don’t want a giveaway,” she said.

Both Giessel and Fairclough responded by saying they don’t think legislators in favor of lowering oil taxes are trying to give anything away. Instead, Giessel said she thinks that the state’s current tax structure is driving producers to other parts of the world where it’s cheaper to do business.

“Right now we have a very significant problem,” she said.

Giessel said the fight over the tax bill has been one of the most contentious issues this session, and said opponents to significantly revamping the tax structure have dug in their heels in the Senate.

“Right now we’re at a stalemate,” she said.

Bob Griffin told the legislators he would like to see a greater emphasis on better education spending. He doesn’t want more money going to schools, but rather, he’d like to see Alaska’s public education system overhauled to make sure the money is being better spent on getting the state’s children educated the right way.

“We need to focus more on education reforms that work,” he told the delegation.

Fairclough said she doesn’t like the current education system’s emphasis on complicated formulas and strategies. Instead, she’d like to see a more back-to-basics approach.

“How about, ‘Third grade — I need to read,’” she suggested as an example of a simple, easy to understand standard.

Dyson told those in the crowd that entitlement programs and the high cost of retirement benefits make the job of controlling state spending a difficult one.

“Sixty percent of our budget we have no control over,” he said.

Ronnie Sullivan thanked the delegation for working quickly to get money into the supplemental budget to help build a replacement for the recently-closed Chugiak Volunteer Fire Department Station 35.

“This is a huge issue for the community,” she said.

Bill Tucker said he’d like to see the Legislature come up with a way to purchase the old Wallace homestead near Mount Baldy. Tucker and the group he represents are hoping the state can purchase the property in hopes of preserving it for future generations. Although State Parks currently can’t purchase land, Tucker thinks legislators can come up with a way to use state funds to buy the property.

“It is basically an opportunity to fix a problem that is endemic in the Chugach State Park,” he said.

Til Wallace, who originally homesteaded the land in the late 1950s, said he thinks the property could be a huge benefit to the local community.

“Central Park in New York wouldn’t be there today if they hadn’t set it apart back in the 1800s,” he said.

Wallace said he’s much rather see the land in public hands than developed by private developers.

“The land won’t be available forever,” he said.

On an issue closer to home, Sen. Dyson said he’s been working to get funding for a fix to the tricky Artillery Road interchange. Although a fix to the notorious intersection isn’t imminent, Dyson said he believes it’s only a matter of time before the state comes up with a permanent solution.

“There’s some reason to have some optimism,” he said.

In response to a call by one of the attendees to do a better job now to make sure Alaska is prepared for a future where oil and gas revenues don’t fund as much of state government, Fairclough said legislators are doing everything they can to make sure renewable energy sources and new industries are getting the help they need.

“This delegation is trying to invest everywhere,” she said.

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