On August 18th, it looked like Kodiak Senator Gary Stevens had lost his bid for re-election. John Cox, his challenger in Republican primary, was ahead by 69 votes. After the absentee ballots were counted, Stevens pulled out 240 votes ahead.
Stevens represents Senate District P, a sprawling district which takes in Kodiak, Homer and Seldovia, parts of the Kenai Peninsula, and Cordova.
In his seventeen years in the Senate, Stevens says, except for his first Senate race, he never faced a tough election until Cox got Kenai Peninsula voters fired up over cuts to the Permanent Fund Dividend.
And Cox’s fight for a full PFD didn’t die with his candidacy. Steven’s challenger this November is Greg Madden, the standard bearer for the Alaskan Independence Party, who promises to pick up where Cox left off.
Both Stevens and Madden are clearly cut from a different political cloth.
All you have to do is look at the art on their walls to get a sense of that.
Stevens has centuries-old Russian Orthodox icons in his dining room. Above his sofa, there’s a colorful oil painting of small fishing boats that Stevens painted himself.
Madden has wood carving projects that are still in progress in the front of his chiropractic office in Soldotna, as well as a painting of a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag, flanked by portraits of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin.
Madden boils down his race to three words:
“It’s all about God, family and country, and in that order,” Madden said.
And God, he says, is about respect for authority and the law. He believes Stevens and other lawmakers broke faith with the voters, when they reduced the dividend and tapped into Permanent Fund earnings to pay for government.
Stevens believes Madden doesn’t understand the difficult fiscal realities behind those decisions.
“If my opponent were elected instead of me, he would have a very a very ‘Come to Jesus,” time, when he realizes that there is simply not the money to do all the things that the public wants.
Madden says, if elected, he’ll push for a full dividend, based on the formula created in the 1980’s, a formula that has undergone some changes over the years, including legislation two years ago, which now limits the money the legislature can draw from the earnings fund to five percent.
Had it been used to pay a full dividend, eligible Alaskans would have each received almost $3,000 this year. Instead, the legislature gave out a $1,000 PFD and used the rest to pay for government.
Stevens said, even with a reduced dividend, the state still had a budget deficit approaching a billion dollars. Stevens says, he’d hate to have seen what would have happened with a $3,000 dividend.
“The math just does not work,” Stevens said. “If we gave a dividend like that, we would have to devastate K-12, the university and the police, and all those things. So, I don’t think people want that.”
Stevens concedes that voters sent a message during the Primary: They want bigger dividends. And while he hopes the legislature can find a way to make that happen, given the future outlook for state revenue, he doesn’t see how without drastic cuts.
“What folks don’t always realize is how much our fortunes have changed. Five years ago, 90 percent of our revenue came from oil. Now only about 17 percent comes from oil,” Stevens said. “So just in looking at that and nothing else, there’s a big difference in the revenue we had to spend.”
For Madden, it’s not a matter of money but principle.
“I don’t believe that there’s any more right for the legislature to take your PFD and use it for their own purposes,” he said, “than if they were to show up at your house and drag your boat off, and say, ‘Well, we got to pay some bills, so we’re going to take your boat.’”
Madden says what the legislature did amounts to theft, and it needs to pay back what it cut from dividends, maybe not all at once, but over time.
Stevens says he’s glad he and other moderates like Natasha von Imhof, survived the primary.
“Just imagine if all of the high dividend folks had been elected, “Stevens said. “They would go to Juneau in January, and they would be faced with the same problem I’m faced with: How do you pay a high dividend and still provide services?”
Stevens says it’s easy to run for office and make a lot of promises, but very difficult to deliver on them.
“There are a lot of tools that are on the table that haven’t been used yet,” said Madden, who believes the Alaska Constitution can provide the necessary guidance to decide what should be cut.
“What’s not a constitutional mandate, it may not get funded at all. And there’s a lot of things are out there,” Madden said.
The legislature’s budget experts say, the only problem, is, the constitution mandates a lot of things and doesn’t spell out how much should be spent on each mandate.
“Instead of saying we’re going to have to slash education, public safety, what I want to go back to is, for one, we need a zero-sum budget,” Madden said. “We need to say, here’s what we have. And once it’s gone, we can’t spend any more, there’s nothing else to spend.”
But a zero-sum budget and a full PFD would have left the state with very little money for government services.
The legislature’s budget experts say the revenue this fiscal year is about $4.2 billion – and if full PFD’s had been paid, that would have left the state with about $2.2 billion to spend. After paying for schools, the university system and constitutionally-mandated debt service, the state would have been about out of cash, with no money to pay for other big-ticket programs like Medicaid, public Safety and transportation.
“I don’t see that we have a lot of choices,” Madden said. “There might be some eating of the seed corn.”
While Madden declined to name specific programs he would cut, he believes the state could close the budget gap by finding more efficiencies – and even use volunteers to build schools and other projects to keep costs down.
Madden’s views are similar to those of other candidates in the Primary, who knocked out moderate Republicans and even staunch conservatives like Sen. John Coghill of Fairbanks.
“To think he was not conservative enough to represent that district is pretty shocking,” said Stevens, who said the Primary Election tends to favor the extremes of the Republican and Democratic parties.
Stevens turned 80 in August. If elected, he would be the “old man of the Senate. He hopes that his age and experience can help set the state on a less precarious path.
Stevens acknowledges that it’s harder to be a moderate in today’s political climate, but believes time is on his side.
“Politics is an ebb and flow, and things come and go,” Stevens said.
“And there will be moderation in the future, because you can’t take the extreme view of funding the entire dividend and cutting the services people need.”
For Madden, there’s no grey area.
“It’s a matter of liberty and freedom,” he said, “a matter of government taking more of and more of what it wants. And it’s a matter of regard for the law.”
One thing both men agree on: Each has a different interpretation of the law and different priorities for state spending. Also, the polarity in this race is reflected in many others across the state. And the win or loss of the incumbent, will influence the make-up of the leadership in the Senate.