Battle of the islands

Angoon incumbent, Cordova challenger face off in race to represent rural Southeast

Posted: Thursday, October 24, 2002

Voters in most small Southeast communities will choose between incumbent Rep. Albert Kookesh of Angoon and newcomer Gary Graham of Cordova when they cast ballots Nov. 5.

For more Juneau Empire coverage of the November 5 general election, please visit the Juneau Empire Elections Guide.

House District 5 lines were changed to reflect statewide population shifts, so Cordova and several Prince William Sound villages are now in the district that goes as far south as Metlakatla and includes Angoon, Hoonah, Tenakee, Haines and Skagway.

Kookesh said he's running for a fourth term because of his concern about education funding for rural Alaska and the state's ongoing gap between income and expenses.

He believes rural communities receive less money than necessary to run their schools.

"Unless somebody like me is there to make some noise, the urban legislators will think it's OK to continue to fund us at a disparity," Kookesh said.

He also said he wants to be involved in crafting a fiscal plan "that makes some sense."

Graham, a pilot and restaurant owner, said he's running because he wants Cordova to have a strong representative in the Legislature, and he does not believe Kookesh provides that.

"There hasn't been a single bill come out of District 5 in the six years he's been in office." Graham said.

Kookesh said Graham does not understand how the legislative process works.

The Republican majority controls the calendar and the committee schedule and makes it extremely difficult for minority Democrats to get legislation passed. As a result, Kookesh said, if he wants to pass legislation, he asks a majority member to introduce it or attach it to another bill.

He pointed to a corporate shareholder voting measure he was able to attach to an electronic voting bill that passed last year.

"That's the problem with him (Graham)," Kookesh said. "He has very little information about how the process works in Juneau."

Kookesh believes he would do a better job than Graham because he grew up in the district and has six years of experience in the Legislature.

Graham said in answering a KTUU-TV questionnaire that Kookesh has "too many irons in the fire."

Kookesh dismissed that criticism. He said he no longer spends his time commercial fishing and has sold his fishing permits.

Kookesh is co-chairman of the Alaska Federation of Natives and chairman of the board of Sealaska, the regional Native corporation for Southeast Alaska, but he said those positions require quarterly meetings, not ongoing daily attention.

He said he does not understand why his involvement in AFN would be questioned.

"I belong to it because I want to make a difference in the lives of Alaska Native people," he said.

Both candidates say the fiscal gap is one of the most important issues facing the state.

For several years the state has bridged the gap between income and expenses by taking money - $350 million so far this fiscal year - from a state savings account, the Constitutional Budget Reserve. The state Revenue Department estimates that fund will run out of cash in 2004 or 2005, depending on the price of oil, which funds much of state government.

Kookesh said he'd support a plan similar to the one that passed the House this year. It called for reinstating an income tax, increasing the alcohol tax and using some Alaska Permanent Fund earnings, while continuing to pay dividends at a reduced level. All of those proposals except the alcohol tax increase died in the Senate.

"I just can't see any more room for budget cuts," Kookesh said. "We've cut ourselves to the point of closing roads."

He predicted further cuts would mean the loss of troopers; the power cost equalization program, which helps pay rural electric bills; and Denali KidCare, which provides health insurance to children in low- and moderate-income families.

Kookesh and Graham both oppose a state sales tax because many small communities depend on sales tax for their local budgets.

Graham talks about resource development as a long-term fix to the fiscal gap. In the short term, though, he would demand interdepartmental coordination, replace equipment less frequently and look for budget cuts, particularly in the Habitat Division of the Department of Fish and Game and in the Departments of Environmental Conservation, Natural Resources and Health and Social Services.

He'd consider a head tax on cruise ships, a seasonal fuel tax and "if absolutely necessary" an income tax with a possible exemption for year-round residents. He'd support using excess earnings of the permanent fund as a last resort after a vote of the people.

Both candidates oppose a ballot measure moving legislative sessions to Anchorage or the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. Neither supports building a road from Juneau to Skagway, citing opposition from residents in Haines and Skagway.

Kookesh and Graham both say a declining market for Alaska wild salmon, due to increased competition worldwide from salmon farms, is a serious problem for the district which includes many commercial fishermen.

Both support increased funding to market Alaska salmon. Graham said he'd introduce legislation to ban the import of farmed salmon in Alaska and would ask the federal government to impose tariffs on farmed salmon from other countries.

Kookesh said he'd work with the congressional delegation to look at banning imports of farmed salmon, and said the state also may need to look at a buyback of some fishing permits, if fishermen are interested.

Both candidates support putting a constitutional amendment before voters to allow a rural priority for subsistence hunting and fishing.

Graham sees that as only a short-term solution, though. He wants to push for changes in the federal law that requires a rural preference, so the state can run the program as it wants to, he said.

According to the most recent Alaska Public Offices Commission reports, Kookesh has raised about $25,000 for the race and spent $18,000, and Graham has raised $19,000 and spent $14,000.

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