Story last updated at 2:36 p.m. Friday, August 9, 2002

Fisheries issues set debate sparks flying between Scalzi, Seaton

Candidates agree on income tax

by Chris Bernard
Staff writer

Despite the stuffy temperature in the packed city council chambers during Thursday's debate, the candidates managed to keep their cool -- almost until the end.

Opposing Republican candidates for House District 35, challenger Paul Seaton and incumbent Rep. Drew Scalzi, squared off in the public forum, as did Sen. Alan Austerman, R-Kodiak, whose district was recently amended to include Homer. Austerman is running unopposed.

The three answered questions from members of the Homer-area media, from each other and from the audience. While Scalzi and Seaton, in particular, had much to disagree about, all three candidates were in agreement on the inevitability of a state income tax, despite the contention of Republican gubernatorial candidate Frank Murkowski, who is proposing to bridge the fiscal gap through budget cuts.

"I question whether you can cut your way out of a billion dollar hole," Austerman said. "Should we pay our own way? Yes, I think we should."

Austerman said he has long been a supporter of using undistributed income from the Alaska Permanent Fund to help balance the budget.

Seaton echoed Austerman, but said the permanent fund should only be used as a last resort.

"We're going to have a hard time cutting that large a hole," said Seaton, who favors a flat tax equal to 10 percent of an individual's federal income tax. "We can go to privatizing some of those services to help."

Scalzi said he'd like to see the "future governor's" plan.

"You just can't cut a half a billion dollars. We're going to have to raise new revenues," he said, mentioning an income tax, but added that privatization was not the answer.

Near the end of the two-hour forum, a question for Seaton from audience member Cheryl Sutton started off the only really contentious portion of the evening. Sutton questioned information on Seaton's Web site about Scalzi's support for fisheries bills that she said "falsely represents what these bills actually accomplish."

Seaton pointed out that Sutton is a "lobbyist paid by Outside interests who wrote all these bills," and said he stood behind his Web site's claims.

Scalzi shook his head vehemently.

"There's so much to rebut," he replied.

He said he'd recently heard negative rumors that he was "in the pocket" of the fish processor industry that he'd traced back to Seaton.

"It's like saying Don Young is a card-carrying member of the Sierra Club," Scalzi said. "It's offensive."

When the time allotted them to respond to that question expired, both candidates used a portion of their closing remarks to continue the debate.

One member of the audience asked specifically about fish processor IFQs. The answer brought adamant responses from all three candidates.

"I don't approve," Austerman said. "That was a backdoor deal that took place without the knowledge of most Alaskans. I don't believe we should be giving the resource away. It's a public entity that should be kept public."

Scalzi agreed.

"I'm not in favor of processor shares. But I am in support of IFQs. We have to look out for the locals, but we have to have vision," he said.

Seaton said he believes the processor IFQs are in violation of the constitution.

"When those fish come out of the water, they're private property," he said. "You can't tell them they have to sell their private property to a specific person."

Seaton, a commercial fisherman and former teacher, has lived 35 years in Alaska. He has not held political office before, but said he has served on various boards and commissions and has spent time lobbying in Juneau.

"I have the hard work ethic and analytical skills necessary for this job," he said.

Seaton called the fiscal gap the "biggest problem in Juneau right now," and also said he is committed to open government, a stab at Scalzi's involvement in closed-door caucuses with other legislators.

Scalzi, also a commercial fisherman, was elected to the House in 2000. Prior to that, he served eight years on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly. A longtime Homer-area resident, Scalzi also said the fiscal gap is "the number one pressing issue before us in the state."

"I'm a consensus builder," he said, referring to his involvement with the Legislature's bipartisan Fiscal Policy Caucus.

"I took the initiative, and the accomplishments are well documented."

The candidates offered different opinions on the role of party politics in contributing to legislative gridlock.

Austerman called it an organic part of the process, rather than a problem.

"This is politics, this is not a business. This is the way it's done all over the world," he said. "Gridlock is a natural thing."

Scalzi offered his idea for a solution, but said party politics may not be the only cause of gridlock.

"Gridlock exists between the administration and the houses whether they are in the same party or different parties," he said. "Being someone who's solution-oriented, I'd like to see us go to a unicameral system. A lot of the productivity that's lost is in dealing with two bodies."

He said he's drafted a bill proposing such a system for the next session.

Seaton blamed the practice of parties meeting privately, out of the public eye.

"(A unicameral system) wouldn't matter as long as we have closed-door caucuses," he said. "Instead of working toward the public business, we're strategizing against them."

Candidates were asked about the dumping of oil industry discharge in Cook Inlet and whether they are concerned enough about it to change it.

Austerman said he'd have to see impact statements and reports that conclusively show the discharge is causing problems.

Scalzi agreed, and said the reason the discharge is allowed is because of the "flush," or the natural tidal outflow that "distributes the (discharge) in a manner that's reasonable."

Seaton said the oil industry should be required to reinject the discharge back into the wells.

"We have a system that is not good," he said. "We shouldn't be allowing Cook Inlet to be the recipient of drilling mud. Prevention is the key."

Responding to a question about budget cuts affecting "front-line" items, such as road service and state parks, instead of "middle-management" items, each candidate offered his own comments on fiscal management.

Seaton proposed privatization of some government services. "We need to contract them out instead of trying to provide them with state workers," he said. "Then we just need to have standards and inspectors."

Scalzi said that last year the Legislature didn't increase the budget, but it didn't cut it, either.

"Being a legislator and trying to get the nuts and bolts is difficult," he said.

Austerman defended the Legislature's fiscal management.

"If we were to use the governor's budget, all of our savings would be gone and we'd have gotten into the permanent fund a long time ago," he said.

Following the panel questions, the two House candidates were given the opportunity to ask one question of each other.

Scalzi asked Seaton why Republicans should support him when historically he has supported Democratic challengers to Republican candidates and incumbents.

Seaton responded that he Is a "lifelong Republican and self-reliant Alaskan.

"That's the way Alaskans are," he said. "I have Republican values, and I believe these show in what I do."

In his rebuttal, Scalzi said the party system is an "interesting debate in itself.

"We align ourselves with people who share our views, and I do agree that you should vote for the person and not the party," he said.

In his question to Scalzi, Seaton asked about Scalzi's support of a $1 billion general obligation bond.

"When we put together a budget, it's based on the needs of the state," he said. "This is something the voters get to decide on. When we look at the package, we read what's in it and let the voters have that choice."

Seaton rebutted that the bond package, if passed, will actually increase the fiscal gap by $64 million per year while it is being repaid.

"When your primary goal is to close the fiscal gap and you abdicate your responsibility, that is not good government," he said.

The primary is scheduled for Aug. 27.