By Heidi Zemach for SCN
State Senator Cathy Giessel, R, held a town hall meeting at Bear Creek Volunteer Fire Station Tuesday night, just two weeks before her Nov 6 election against challenger Ron Devon, who is running as an Independent for the new District N senate seat. Giessel said afterward that it was the second most combative gathering she’s attended yet. But she did show a tenacious determination, and revealed her strong-willed temperament, as she aggressively debated with Dave Paperman issues such as education and oil tax reform—when she could get a word in.
Dave often has strong opinions, and he is prone to raising his voice and interrupting frequently, as a former East coaster. But Giessel gave as good as she got throughout their exchanges, even when Dave’s charming (but squirmy) two-year old daughter Edna Mae added to the din.
Dan Seavey, the famed musher and retired school teacher also was there, and although his comments were few, they were direct and brief observations, coming from his rich, lifetime experience. Also attending was elementary schoolteacher Mark Fraad, who also spoke in support of public education and shared views on the need for more, better maintained bike paths.
The main concern of Bear Creek area residents is flooding, or if it’s not, it should be, Seavey said. He had taken the senator on a tour of Box Canyon, the mountain pass above his own old Exit Glacier neighborhood, and had shown her the temporary diversion structure that keeps getting washed out in extreme floods. The recent flood broke apart the structure and caused considerable damage to Seavey’s, and his extended family’s Iditaride dog-sled visitor buildings. Seavey wants the diversion structure hardened, and secured, so the neighborhood below won’t be flooded again.
Giessel said she believed that Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Mike Navarre had an $8 million plan to address flood problem areas in the borough, and wants people affected to write him letters of support for the plan. Giessel also has heard from residents about the ongoing dilemma that prevents them from dredging gravel from the creek and stream beds for flood protection without paying the state’s mining royalty fee that they consider cost-prohibitive. The state has already removed the tax on that gravel extraction fee, which helped somewhat, Giessel said. But there apparently remains another part of the solution that still must be addressed by the state before dredging can take place.
Most of the hour and 45 minute session, however, was taken with debate on state-wide issues including public education, and the tax on oil and gas. So much time, in fact, that they never got around to her health care issues, such as her opposition to Obama’s Health Care reforms, or her efforts to limit women’s reproductive rights by sponsoring a bill requiring women to get an ultrasound prior to having an abortion.Education: During a Tea Party candidates forum last June in Anchorage, each candidate was given a red “no” card, and a green “yes” card. Giessel lifted the green “yes” paddle to answer the question whether she supported “the complete privatization of education.” It was a confusing question, she said, and one that the moderator had attempted to clarify. She, and the candidates with her understood the question to mean that they wanted to know whether they supported a school voucher program, or “parental choice” which she does, Giessel said. She denied that she favors the “complete privatization of education,” as her opponent Devon claims, however.
The school voucher program Giessel clearly advocates for would take the state’s per-child allocation awarded annually for each Alaska public school student, and would allow parents to choose where to use it, be it a private school, religious school, charter school, or specialized school. Currently, those wanting an alternative education for their children generally must pay out of pocket—although the state does fund home-school.
Many of the children who win Alaska’s spelling bees and scholarship awards are home-schooled or go to private school, she said. Giessel home-schooled all of her own children, and they all have masters degrees now. Meanwhile, she said, funding for the public school system has become a drain on state finances, while public school teachers aren’t getting the money they need for use in the classroom. She has called public education funding “a bottomless pit,” during a candidates forum in Seward. But Monday night denied saying that.
“The funding has become unsustainable because it’s not going into the classroom,” she said. As an example, she said she had to help Girdwood School obtain the $50,000 it had asked the state for to replace worn out furniture.
She took exception to Paperman’s various passionate assertions that limited public school funding should not be used to pay for religious education; that alternative schools employ teachers that are not certified; and that they are not required to teach a state board of education approved, or science-based curriculum. “Wow! You’ve painted a really grim picture,” Giessel said. And she questioned whether Dave’s own bias was really that he was against religious schools, or as she put it, against including morals in education.
“Alaska ranked 50th in the nation in 4th grade (reading or writing) scores, we’ve got a pretty high dropout rate right now, and you are jumping to some fantastic conclusions,” Giessel said.
Mark Fraad, who has taught in a variety of schools for 27 years, defended the job that public schools have been doing, but said it is unfair to compare them to schools that can select only the students they want, and can refuse to teach special education students, or students with behavior issues. Seward Elementary teachers have received merit pay in past 2-3 years, he said. The school has been declared a “Blue Ribbon School of Excellence,” and has an amazing group of teachers, he said. Nevertheless, it has support positions (such as a custodian) that it has been unable not fill. “Public Education is about educating all kids, and giving them all an opportunity to succeed,” Fraad said.
That’s exactly what school vouchers would do, Giessel retorted.
She did agree with her audience of four, however, that unfunded, often politically-motivated federal mandates, are crippling public school districts financially, and that residents who live in larger cities have more educational choices for their children than those who live in rural areas. All also agreed with Dan Seavey, who suggested that small, locally-controlled schools, like the ones he remembers in his youth, were probably more responsive to their students’ needs, and provided a better education.
The other major subject debated were the pros and cons of taxing oil companies, and whether reforming the state’s ACES taxes program by significantly lowering those taxes, which she would like to see return to pre-Palin days, would stimulate greater oil development. If she’s in favor of giving $2 billion per year of the state’s budget to oil companies, which would deeply impact the state’s budget, why couldn’t she at least agree to make those reductions contingent upon promises from oil companies that they will actually produce more oil, like her Senate Bipartisan caucus counterparts insisted they do? Paperman asked.
Existing oil leases already require that the companies owning them must show progress toward development within 7-10 years, Giessel said. And at the very start of the last legislative session, the bipartisan senate caucus rejected a proposal that would have “incentivized” oil companies to drill further on already-established oil fields, a costly process that would have yielded immediate results, she said. Opening new fields, however, would mean a delay of at least 7-10 years before results are seen, she said. That decision showed that caucus members were not serious, and had already made their minds to oppose the governor’s tax proposals, she said.
Meanwhile, new oil production has slowed, the price of a barrel of oil has sunk to $104.02, whereas the state needs at least $104.25 to balance its budget. Without action taken, it will soon turn from a surplus into a deficit, she said. Giessel handed out charts that show a historical trend of diminishing oil production in Alaska compared to the growth in other states and countries.
Wouldn’t Giessel have been better able to debate those issues with her fellow Alaska senators had she not taken herself out of the entire caucus process, and put herself in the minority of four republicans? SCN asked. As a caucus member, she could have even chaired some key senate committees.
Had she accepted a committee chairmanship, and been part of the bipartisan caucus, Giessel said, she would have had to have voted along with the majority on the budget, rather than reject it. That’s just the way the broken system works. Her republican colleague Sen. Lesil McGuire, who was part of the bipartisan caucus, was unable to have her voice heard at all, she said.
Challenger Ron Devon’s campaign emphasizes his willingness to work across party lines regardless of the issue. He opposes the current oil tax reform proposal, unless oil companies guarantee that they will develop. He also opposes school vouchers.
Finally, Seavey suggested that having a state income tax, like other states do, would remedy the problem of Big Oil companies virtually owning the state, and ruling Alaska politics. That also might help reverse the public disenfranchisement (low vote turnout) that it causes, he said. Surprisingly, that was an idea upon which both Giessel and Paperman appeared to agree.
Then Giessel thanked everyone for coming, and headed back home to Anchorage in her red truck with the big campaign sign on it, to get ready for another debate at 9 a.m. the next morning.