While Matanuska Susitna Valley Republicans winnow down a list of replacements for a departing Wasilla legislator, Gov. Sarah Palin said she is looking for someone who won't be pressured to toe the party line.
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Palin said she wholeheartedly agreed with a letter she received Thursday from Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, who asked that she talk to candidates about their ability to stand firm under pressure.
"We have to change the culture in state government and we have to get away from politics as usual when politics as usual has allowed Alaska to arrive at the point it is today," said Palin.
At stake is the District 14 seat held by Rep. Vic Kohring. The seven-term Republican, who faces federal charges of bribery and extortion, announced last month he would leave his position July 19 to concentrate on his defense. Kohring maintains he is innocent.
Seven Matanuska Susitna Valley Republicans have met the qualifications for the job, according to district officials who will narrow the list to three on Friday and forward it to the governor.
In a letter to Palin this week, Gara asked that Palin discuss with candidates their willingness to buck the pressure to vote along party lines.
Gara said party line voting has resulted in bad decisions and harmed party members who have broken ranks in the past to vote their consciences.
It led lawmakers to pass a flawed oil tax in 2006, he said. That's an issue that could be the first on the new lawmaker's plate in a special session later this year.
"We have a pretty split Legislature between those of us who believe in a much stronger oil tax and those of us who support the law we have on the books right now," Gara said. "That appointment is probably going to be a swing vote on whether or not we stick with what I think is a very flawed oil tax."
House Speaker John Harris, R-Valdez, said caucus members are required to follow party lines only in the final budget vote and procedural motions.
Though many House members supported a tax on gross production over the net profits tax that passed, Harris said it was clear such a tax would not have passed the Senate or former Gov. Frank Murkowski's veto pen. The final vote for a net tax, which was on party lines, was a compromise, he said.
He said Gara's letter was political posturing from an industry critic.
"Nobody is required to vote any certain line on oil taxation. They can vote anyway they want to vote. Les is using this as a political opportunity," Harris said.
Harris, however, supports a special session to review the Petroleum Profits Tax.
And Palin said she wants lawmakers to weigh in once more and make clear their wishes on a tax that she said passed under a dark cloud. And she said Kohring's replacement should demonstrate the knowledge, experience and integrity to make a good decision.
"I'm not going to make that candidate promise me anything except promise that they will fairly and objectively consider the situation we are in," she said.
Palin said a special session may be called for October or November if the state Department of Revenue can gather the information it needs to properly review the tax in time.
Meanwhile the governor has 30 days from Kohring's July 19 resignation to choose a replacement. She may choose from the list forwarded by district officials or pick a district Republican of her own choosing. The candidate then must be confirmed by a majority of House Republicans.
District 14 Committee Chairman Steve Colligan said at least 10 committee members will evaluate written and oral interviews with the candidates. They also will consider a public presentation by each candidate at an open meeting today in Wasilla.
The committee will score each candidate and announce the final three that evening.
"We are looking for folks with good conservative values, there's no doubt about that," said Colligan. "Part of being the best candidate is representing the constituents."
The seven candidates for the District 14 seat are Wes Keller, legislative staff for Sen. Fred Dyson; Colleen Sullivan Leonard, governor's office staff and Wasilla City Council; Darroll Hargraves, retired school superintendent; Steve Menard, governor's office staff and Wasilla City Council; Pat Marley, Wasilla business owner; Greg Koskela, Wasilla business owner; Dan Kelly, Mat-Su Borough Assembly.
Kohring and former state lawmakers Reps. Pete Kott and Bruce Weyhrauch were indicted last May on charges relating to alleged dealings with Anchorage-based oil field services Company VECO Corp.
Two VECO executives, Bill Allen and Rick Smith, pleaded guilty to extortion and bribery related to their dealings with legislators.
In a separate case, a federal jury in Anchorage last week found former Rep. Tom Anderson guilty of bribery and corruption.
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