Four candidates who hope to become the new House District 33 state representative gathered Wednesday in Ketchikan for a question-and-answer forum hosted by the local Chamber of Commerce.

Patti Mackey, Agnes Moran and Peggy Wilson are in a contested race to become the Republican candidate. Matt Olsen is running unopposed as a Democrat. All will be on their respective party’s ballot in the upcoming Aug. 28 primary election.

Mackey, who runs the Ketchikan Visitors Bureau, said the area has struggled, and she would like to help improve the economy for southern Southeast residents.

“As a candidate I feel I’m a worthy choice because I’ve developed very strong relationships with business people, elected officials and industry leaders,” she said. “I’ve actively worked with legislators and the governor’s office on issues that are important to our economy. I have a solid understanding of the political process in Alaska, and I hope to be welcomed into the Republican majority and to work effectively for our district.”

Moran, a Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly Member, said she has a vision for the district.

“I really would like to see District 33 return to the vitality that was here when I was in middle school, high school and the 80s and the 70s,” she said. “And I think we can do that by diversifying our economy. We need to look at mining, we need to look at maritime, we need to look at mariculture. We need to work on what our greatest assets are here as a community.”

Olsen, a Ketchikan City Council member and teacher, said three issues are key to improving the community: education, including vocational education, a diverse economy, and reliable power.

“We can want to have everything in the world. We can want to expand our shipyard to be able to build cruise ships, we can want to have a huge timber industry come back, we can want to support a lot of different things, but unless we have energy, we’re not going to get any of it done,” he said.

Wilson, the incumbent representative from Wrangell, said that if training programs were put in place now, Ketchikan could become a regional hub, and provide support for growing industries.

“The Arctic is opening up, and we’re going to have so much more traffic around and through Ketchikan because of the jobs that are going to be available, and we have to prepare ourselves for those jobs, so we can get those jobs and not somebody else,” she said.

Previously, Ketchikan was in District 1, and Wrangell was part of District 2. The new District 33 includes the Ketchikan and Wrangell boroughs, parts of Prince of Wales Island, and Hyder.

All the candidates said they support additional education funding from the state. Olsen said he would like the funding formula to be adjusted annually for inflation; Wilson said it should be reviewed every two years; Mackey said funding should be approved before districts are required to submit their budgets; and Moran said the whole system needs to be revamped to fund education equally throughout the state.

The candidates gave some ideas for improving education. Moran said she would like to increase standards for students.

“Kids live up to higher expectations,” she said. “We also need to expand vocational-tech opportunities. But if we do that, we need to ensure that there are statewide standards for voc-tec. So that when these kids exit out of a high school program, they’re well positioned to go into a trades program if that’s what they want to do, or on to a college-based program.”

Olsen said the state should fund preschools; Wilson touted the merit scholarship program that the state recently started offering; and Mackey said additional vocational education opportunities would help.

Regarding health care exchanges, the candidates all said they don’t agree with the federal one-size-fits-all approach. Olsen said he would like to see health care exchanges for specific populations in Alaska.

“I see the result of people not having health care every day in my school,” he said. “It’s a problem when a lot of your children don’t have access to health care. That said, do I think the federal solution is the end-all-be-all for Alaska, no I don’t. We do need to make specific changes to it. But I do support an exchange that helps those that are most in need.”

The candidates were asked how much the state should hold in reserves. Olsen said Alaska should hold back at least one year’s worth of funding. Wilson said it should be more like two-and-a-half. Moran said the state now has about 10 years’ worth, and is on the right path. Mackey said it would have to be at least two or three years, but the state needs to consider rising costs and the potential for reduced revenue.

“We have been on a shopping spree, if you will, over the last few years as we enjoyed the volatility of oil prices in our favor,” she said. “All of us are paying more at the pump right now and to fuel our homes, but the reverse of that is always that it’s great for our budget. I think we’ve been a little bit too ecstatic with those surplus revenues and spent those.”

Hydroelectric power generation was another topic, and each candidate supported increasing hydro opportunities.

Moran said it makes the most sense to focus first on raising the Swan Lake dam to increase power generation potential there. Olsen said he would like to see a regional power grid, and a state-funded study of alternative power sources. Mackey said dams are expensive to build and take a long time to permit. She said the community should focus on projects already under development, such as Whitman Lake, Swan Lake and Mahoney Lake.

Wilson said there is potential, such as Whitman Lake and Swan Lake.

“Mahoney Lake (also) is a lake that needs to be looked at. We need to look at maybe seeing how many people can conserve on their energy use,” she said. “It’s a two-edged sword. If we went to pellets and started to burn pellets for heat, we don’t know how long we would have a supply of pellets. There’s not one answer to this.”

The winner of the Republican House District 33 primary will face Olsen and Ketchikan’s incumbent Rep. Kyle Johansen. Johansen pulled out of the Republican primary to run as an independent. He is gathering signatures to get his name on the general election ballot.

Mackey, Moran and Wilson will participate in a live KRBD call-in forum for the contested primary race, starting at 7 p.m. Thursday.