Senate Debate: Coghill and Hopkins discuss Alaska’s future
In preparation for Alaska’s upcoming elections, Senator John Coghill (R) and former Fairbanks North star Borough Mayor Luke Hopkins (D) joined members of the UAF and Fairbanks community Thursday night to debate some of the biggest issues currently facing the state, including the fiscal crisis and continued budget cuts facing Alaska’s high education system.
A series of eight questions was prepared in the weeks leading up to the debate for moderator Mike Mertes to ask the Alaska Senate District B candidates. The questions addressed university spending and program cuts, oil prices, state budget reform, substance abuse, law enforcement and natural resources.
In response to the first question posed by Mertes regarding the role of the University of Alaska and steps each candidate would take to ensure its future, the two candidates reached the same conclusion that the university was a vital part of the state’s identity as a whole. However, Hopkins and Coghill reached that conclusion through very different paths, a theme that would continue throughout the night.
“UAF, and the UA across the state, provides an incredible opportunity as a resource for our youth to come to higher education,” Hopkins said. “My position is that we must not only maintain funding at the university but we must provide additional funding so that we can move forward with our students.That’s what our state needs to be doing. That’s what our legislature needs to be doing. That’s what I supported when I was mayor.”
While Hopkins placed significant focus on the students of the UA, Coghill seemed to view the question from a more global perspective.
“If you think about the northern hemisphere, if you look at the geography of Alaska, we’re the keeper of the Arctic, keeper of the Pacific, we’re watching what’s going on in Russia, we’re watching what’s going on in Canada.” Coghill said. “We’ve got great responsibility and the university is core to that responsibility. Funding is going to be a problem as we’re seeing. When 80 percent of the income of a state just dissipates you have some hard questions to answer.”
Another significant difference between the two candidates was their stance on Alaska’s recent marijuana legalization. Hopkins stated he would like to continue the licensing process with no repeals, looking to the industry for the potential to build small business and boost the economy through a marijuana tax similar to the current alcohol tax.
Coghill on the other hand said while he respected the people’s vote to legalize the plant he would support a repeal if possible. With the conflict between state and federal law, the industry could cause problems, Coghill said.
At the end of the debate, the discussion was opened to members of the audience if the wish.
Bruce Bridwell, a Fairbanks local, asked both the candidates how they personally felt Alaska should generate more revenue and attempt to balance the budget.
Coghill’s focus was on continued resource related revenue while Hopkins looked more closely at budget reform. With regard to potential tax implementation, the two candidates provided nearly opposite answers.
“I feel that a sales tax is regressive and should be left up to local municipalities,” Hopkins said. “When we look at a progressive tax system, that’s going to be income tax.”
“Probably an income tax is the last one in my view,” Coghill responded. “You might have 380-390 thousand people in Alaska that are productive, of those you’re probably going to get about 47 percent of them that actually pay that income tax. So if you want $500 million in taxes that’s going to fall on the backs of only about 160-170 thousand people.”
Coghill pointed out that a sales tax would affect more people and thus raise more revenue. These would include tourists and military personnel among others, Coghill said, referring to a sales tax as a broader base tax structure.
Multiple audience members expressed their appreciation for the candidate’s respect and civility to each other throughout the debate, as well as their focus on the issues at hand.
“Mr. Hopkins and I may approach these issues from different directions,” Coghill said. “But in the end we both want what’s best for the State of Alaska and what’s best for the University of Alaska.”
In last week’s edition a mistake was printed, listing Senator John Coghill’s name for two separate opinions regarding the legalization of marijuana in Alaska. Former Borough Mayor Luke Hopkins stated he would like to continue the licensing process with no repeals. Coghill said he would support a repeal, if possible.