Homer Alaska - Opinion

Story last updated at 5:21 PM on Wednesday, January 12, 2011

When it comes to politics, let's change our tone

Last Friday before they headed off to Juneau for this year's session of the Alaska Legislature, Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, and Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, met with about 45 citizens at a meet-and-greet at Captain's Coffee in Homer. Republicans, Democrats, nonpartisans and independents sat at tables with each other. People asked polite questions. No one screamed or yelled.

Before Saturday's tragedy in Tucson, Ariz., when an assassin gravely wounded Rep. Gabriel Giffords, D-Tucson, and killed six others, legislators meeting with their constituents has been a common occurrence in our country. One of the things that make the politics of Alaska — and the United States — particularly wonderful is that, in general, our elected officials are easily accessible. State legislators, like Stevens and Seaton, regularly hold public events and are involved with their communities. Ditto for Alaska's congressional delegation. Until Saturday's shooting in Tuscon, open political gatherings have been a regular part of the fabric of our government.

Pity us all if that should change. It's against everything this nation stands for if public officials must live in fear of their very lives to conduct the public's business. So, let's not let that happen.

While we may disagree with them — even vehemently at times — public officials need to know we've got their backs, that we value the job they do. While no one will ever know for sure exactly what prompted Saturday's shooting, certainly it honors the memory of those who lost their lives if we, as a nation, commit to treating and talking to each other as we want to be treated and talked to. There's nothing wrong with disagreeing, but let's quit being ugly about it. In fact, the name calling, the angry rhetoric, the my-side-is-morally-better-than-your-side attitudes have done nothing to bring us together.

Events like Friday's meet-and-greet at Captain's Coffee or the gathering in front of a Safeway in Tuscon should not require a badge of courage. They're an important part of informing and involving the public in the public's business. For example, at Friday's meeting, Stevens and Seaton said these issues would be their priorities of the 90-day session, which is scheduled to get under way in Juneau on Tuesday:

• Making the second year of every two-year legislative session a 120-day session. Stevens has introduced such a bill to allow legislators more time to consider issues.

• Taking another look at Alaska's oil and gas tax structure. "It's a very complicated issue when you're talking about oil and gas and separating them," Seaton said.

• Paying down Alaska's unfunded public employee retirement debt of about $9 billion.

• Looking at merit and needs based college and post-secondary school scholarships. Stevens, a retired college professor, said hearings on Gov. Sean Parnell's plan to fund $400 million in scholarships showed part-time students working less than 20 hours are most successful.

• Supporting capital projects like the Homer natural gas pipeline and the Homer Landfill redesign.

Those all are worthwhile issues, but legislators can't do the work alone. They need their constituents to be involved in the process. Visit the Legislative Information Office to track bills, send messages and learn more from their staff. Testify at audiconference hearings. Send them e-mails — the best way to contact them, Seaton and Stevens said. Share creative ideas and new insights.

That's the hard work of representative government. We can honor the Tucson dead and injured by keeping democracy free — and safe.

The Homer Legislative Information Office is a great resource for helping to stay on top of what's happening during the legislative session. For information, call Charlene Ditton, the legislative information officer, at 235-7878.