Last week, Anchorage Faith and Action — Congregations Together (AFACT) held a forum spotlighting the four races for state senate in the municipality. District I features Senator Berta Gardner (D-Anchorage), who is running unopposed. District K plays host to a contest between Rep. Mia Costello (R-Anchorage) and newcomer Clare Ross, a Democrat — both vying for the seat left vacant by Hollis French. District M solidly favors incumbent Republican Senator Kevin Meyer, who faces Democratic challenger Felix Rivera. District N squares incumbent Senator Cathy Giessel (R-Anchorage) against former State House Rep. Harry Crawford (D-Anchorage).Anchorage residents lined up to ask the candidates questions.
Costello was a late scratch from the forum, citing a family situation. Giessel declined altogether, leaving Meyer as the lone Republican on the panel.
AFACT was founded in 2003 and comprises eight congregations, with a goal of organizing and mobilizing the faith community in Anchorage — as Senior Pastor of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church Michael Burke (who moderated the forum) described — “in a common commitment to improve the quality of life for our families, our neighborhoods, and our community.”
The coalition of Christian congregations focuses on issues like education, youth recreation, public safety, and health care.
The forum elicited an unlikely twist. Burke asked attendees, who packed St. Mary’s, to form a line in front of the dais. Before a single candidate had the chance to speak, they would hear questions from the community, and then be given just three minutes to offer responses to any or all of them.
Topics ran the gamut, but there was an overarching theme of education. Members of Great Alaska Schools (GAS) — a non-partisan coalition first established in 2004, but which gained notoriety most recently lobbying the Alaska State Legislature for an increase in the Base Student Allocation (BSA) — asked four of the evening’s 17 questions.
Candidates scribbled furiously on scratch paper preparing to cover very complicated matters under time constraints that, by comparison, made the average tweet seem like a lecture.
“I’m from the south,” Crawford quipped. “I’m not sure I’ve ever done anything in three minutes.”
The legislature passed an omnibus education bill back in April, touted by supporters as a compromise, but which only offered a BSA increase equivalent of $226 — about half what Democrats were after. With a projected $22 million shortfall for the 2015-2016 school year, and current funding levels showing no rebound in the coming three years, education is front and center atop the minds of Anchorage residents. Throw in the school district’s estimates of 700 positions facing elimination, and that concern turns into a panic.
All candidates listed education as the top priority, also voicing strong support for Pre-K education. Only two, however, were a part of the vote on this year’s omnibus package. Gardner, whose office initially arrived at the target $425 number and who voted against the final bill, said that nothing is more important to her than education. “I will increase the BSA happily.”
Meyer indicated in a GAS candidate questionnaire that he did not support inflation proofing the BSA, but did express a desire to raise it further. He defended his vote in support of the compromise.
“That was a very difficult issue for us and it wasn’t the amount that I wanted. But, as most of you know, we went into overtime to try to resolve education funding,” he said, noting that education is one of the state’s largest expenditures, to the tune of $1.2 billion annually. “There’s always more things you can do. The frustration I think we feel at the state level is that we fund what we think is a fair amount, and then it’s up to the school district, local school district, in how they apply that.”
Meyer added that increasing BSA above the current amount was difficult given current spending levels. He emphasized passage of SB21, the oil tax reform measure that replaced ACES. “We definitely do need more revenue, but all our revenue is coming right now from oil. And the oil tax reform we did is hopefully going to give us some more oil production.”
Note that in the first sentence, Meyer referenced the need for more revenue. In the second, he cited a desired increase in oil production. Under the new tax regime, one does not automatically lead to the other.
Meyer’s opponent, Felix Rivera, referenced SJR9, a bill sponsored by Mat-Su Republican Senator Mike Dunleavy that would put a constitutional amendment on the ballot opening public funds up to private education. The measure ultimately failed to proceed to a floor vote, but during session, Meyer (who serves as Chair of the Senate Finance Committee) advanced the bill. In the GAS questionnaire, he voiced support for the concept.
“Let me be clear on this,” Rivera said. “I am the only candidate in this race that does not support vouchers.”
The American Legislative Exchange Council has been in the news a lot lately. The 501(c)3 organization comprises conservative state legislators and representatives from the private sector and presents model legislation for states. Alaska, in recent years, has flirted with many proposals promoted by ALEC: “School Choice” education privatization, anti-union “Right to Work” measures, voter ID laws, and the “Stand Your Ground” law (the last of which passed last year and was signed into law).
Negative publicity incurred by ALEC has notably resulted in tech behemoths like Google, Facebook, and Yahoo dropping their support. Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt told NPR: “[W]e should not be aligned with such people — they’re just, they’re just literally lying.”
At last week’s forum, the candidates — who, aside from Meyer, were all Democrats — laughed off the notion that they might align with ALEC. “I probably would not be invited to join,” Ross joked. “I will never be a member of ALEC,” Rivera agreed.
“I did write to ALEC one time and got their booklet of model legislation just so that I would know what they were doing,” Crawford conceded. “But, no, I will not be a member of ALEC and I don’t agree with what ALEC does.”
“I’m not a member of ALEC, would not be a member of ALEC, never have been a member of ALEC,” Meyer added.
Gardner added caution: “ALEC is a think tank. Anybody can have a think tank. Legislative ideas and proposals come from all kinds of sources. There’s nothing wrong with that; you fight the idea, not the organization.”
The absence of both Costello and Giessel prevented either from mentioning that both serve on the organization’s “Tax and Fiscal Policy Task Force.”
Gardner offered the strongest praise for Ballot Measure 2, which would legalize marijuana. “I think that our entire war on drugs is a colossal failure. Any kid can find whatever they’re looking for in any school today,” she told the crowd. “There’s a better approach than criminalizing it.” She hedged the support in ambivalence, however, noting: “frankly, I don’t care about marijuana very much.”
Rivera was the only other candidate to voice support for Ballot Measure 2, saying that he thought it was a generational issue, like marriage equality. Meyer disagreed: “I do not support legalizing marijuana,” he said. “Certainly I think we can decriminalize it. I think it was a mistake making tobacco legal, back whenever we did that in the twenties or something. And I think marijuana could be just as bad if not worse.”
The comparison would be very hard to back up with any credible scientific fact.
Raising the minimum wage was much more popular, with both Clare Ross and Harry Crawford making passionate appeals in support.
“I worked those minimum wage jobs in the fish processing plants and as a waitress, and it is impossible to survive on those wages,” Ross offered. “And it’s immoral that our legislature has not addressed that issue in the last ten years.”
“I went out and collected several hundred signatures myself to get the minimum wage on the ballot this time,” Crawford added. “I also did it in 2002. I’m very much in favor of raising the minimum wage and not stripping away the inflation proofing.”
Mental Illness and Homelessness.
Gardner used mental health to criticize Parnell’s decision to decline the Medicaid expansion made available through the Affordable Care Act. She said that the expansion would provide health care access to upwards of 42,000 Alaskans, giving them preventative care and treatment for substance abuse. Gardner also talked about working with Anchorage Mayor Sullivan on legal homeless camp options, referencing Sullivan’s failed bid to build a homeless campus in West Anchorage.
The plan was nixed almost immediately. Reports cited “sticker shock;” the proposal was estimated to cost somewhere between $50-80 million.
The fate of the campus was much more likely the result of the process by which it was introduced to the public. Anchorage has a vetting process for such proposals; they are generally introduced in community councils. This was announced before any council was made aware, creating the impression that it was something trying to be done to them, rather than a cooperative venture aimed at addressing homelessness. It’s hard to believe it was ever a serious proposal.
Ross and Rivera expressed the crucial need to address mental health in Alaska, during the most emotional responses of the night.
“A really good friend of mine committed suicide last summer,” Ross said. She continued:
We lost her. And she was pretty well to do. She had health insurance. She came from a good family. She had all the resources. But it still wasn’t enough. And there are a lot of people in our community who are struggling like her who don’t have those resources. And I’m concerned about people in rural Alaska who are victims of abuse, and have generations of abuse that leads to suicide. And I think we really need to care for people who are in those positions.
Rivera also spoke from personal experience: “Just like many of us in this room, we know someone who has committed suicide. Especially in my community. I’m openly gay, and in my community that is a huge dilemma, especially in rural Alaska.”
“As far as medical needs go, I think we’re in pretty good shape here in Anchorage, as far as the neighborhood health center and Project Access,” Meyer offered. “But we need to do better.”
Watch the FULL FORUM HERE.