Both candidates vying to represent House District 31 squared off in a forum at the Homer Public Library Saturday. Non-partisan incumbent Paul Seaton and Republican nominee Sarah Vance answered questions on everything from the cost of climate change to more familiar staples this election season: the PFD and the budget.
The library was overflowing with voters waiting to see Vance and Seaton debate, though the event was labeled a forum.
Candidates took both questions crafted by the Friends of the Homer Library Board and from audience members. The night kicked off with questions about development and the Pebble Mine, which Seaton said he opposed.
“I think the Pebble Mine is the wrong mine in the wrong place,” Seaton said to applause.
Vance didn’t say she supported the project, but she did say she had faith in the permitting process.
“Pebble Mine is undergoing their due process, just like we like due process for ourselves or our own company,” she said.
That line of questioning naturally led into Ballot Measure 1, also known as the Stand for Salmon initiative. Both candidates gave similar answers on the topic. Vance told audience members that the state needs to “focus on what we can do right now” to sustain fisheries, and Seaton said he supported the initiative.
“I believe every project developer should know what the standards they need to design their project for,” Seaton said. “Right now, we have a very amorphous thing that just said the commissioner is going to protect fish.”
However, the bulk of Saturday’s hour-and-a-half-long event was spent on the state’s fiscal woes. When asked about specific budget cuts, Vance didn’t offer specific line items that could be reduced, but she focused on a bill that she said would have reduced state employee healthcare costs. She then spoke more broadly about cuts and the economy.
“There are many other ways we can find to streamline and find the efficiencies in our government and reduce the overall spending and still maintain the services we have,” Vance added. “We can build a stronger economy. When we have a stronger economy, people rely on government services less because they’re able to support and rely upon themselves. That’s my proposal.”
Seaton said the budget has already been cut to the bone. He stuck to his proposed fiscal plan that calls for restructuring the Permanent Fund Earnings Reserve, which passed last session, and a broad-based tax. The plan also focuses on reforming oil tax credits, which Seaton focused on heavily.
“It makes no sense at all when they’re paying a 8 percent tax at $65 per barrel, 15 percent tax at $75 per barrel, but we give them a tax credit of 35 percent on all their expenses no matter what the price is,” he said.
Seaton said he would like to see that tax credit rate dropped to 25 percent. Candidates were also asked to provide options for increasing revenue without raising taxes. Vance focused on a program she called Alaska Modified Enterprise Zones.
“That is inviting different businesses and different companies to come utilize our empty buildings and properties that we have across the state,” she explained.
Vance has mentioned the idea before, though she has not said where it came from or how the incentive proposal would work. Seaton focused tax incentives such as the state’s 5-cent-per-pack incentive it gives to tobacco companies. He also mentioned reducing gambling tax deductions cruise ship companies receive.
Another large topic of discussion was SB91, the controversial criminal justice reform bill. Vance said she would like to repeal the bill. When asked how she would replace the money saved by the measure, she argued that the bill didn’t save money.
“We transferred that cost onto individual property owners and every individual in this state,” Vance said.
Vance said the bill led to an increase in property crime along with the state’s opioid crisis.
Seaton said SB91 was implemented poorly, but said the Legislature has passed subsequent bills that have fixed SB91’s shortcomings.
“It was poor because there was design elements that took time to incorporate such as hiring bail control officers, the bail supervisors,” he explained. “If you don’t have them when you go and having automatic releases, then you don’t have responsibility, you don’t have accountability.”
Saturday’s forum won’t be the last time Seaton and Vance will meet up in a forum style event. The candidates are scheduled to appear on KSRM radio on Oct. 30.