15th state Senate District hopefuls debate minus Sam Blakeslee


California should impose an oil extraction fee to help solve its budget problems, including a shortfall in education spending, two of three candidates running for the state Senate said Monday night.

Both Democrat John Laird and Nipomo’s Jim Fitzgerald, who belongs to no political party, said they oppose offshore drilling and favor an extraction tax.

The candidates made the comments during a two-hour forum at Cuesta College designed to showcase candidates for the race for the 15th state Senate District, which will be decided in a special Aug. 17 election.

The League of Women Voters organized and moderated the forum, which drew an audience of about 120 people. Other groups co-sponsored.

Libertarian Mark Hinkle also was on hand, but Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee of San Luis Obispo, the Republican candidate, did not attend.

The intended focus was education and children’s health, but moderator Joan Rich allowed other topics as well.

Laird and Fitzgerald zeroed in on the oil extraction tax. Laird noted that California is the only oil-producing state without one and said even Texas uses oil extraction fees for its schools.

He joked that he was “unsettled” to be using Texas as an example of responsible behavior when it comes to schools.

Fitzgerald said “big oil” stopped the tax from being implemented in California then gave money to “career politicians” to keep things that way.

Hinkle opposed the oil extraction fee and said government should let business and individuals alone except when it comes to protecting rights. Government, he said, should keep “out of the bedroom and out of the board room.”

Under Rich’s careful questioning, candidates covered myriad topics, from personal qualifications to suggestions for fixing the state budget, which is 27 days overdue and faces a $19 billion deficit.

The state Senate seat became vacant in May when its then-occupant, Abel Maldonado, resigned in order to accept an appointment as lieutenant governor from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

On other issues:

• Fitzgerald went after what he called a loophole in Proposition 13, the 1978 tax-cutting initiative that greatly hanged the way the state is governed by altering the government’s approach to collecting taxes.

Proposition 13, Fitzgerald said, was designed to help people who own homes, and corporations that develop commercial buildings should not benefit.

• Laird stood alone in advocating that the state approve its budget by a simple majority of legislators rather than the current two-thirds.

“People think we have majority rule in California. We don’t. We have minority rule” with one-third of the legislators stopping legislation, he said.

• Public employee pensions are a growing problem that must be addressed during negotiations, Laird and Hinkle said. They agreed that current pension agreements are locked in, but management can be more aggressive in negotiating new contracts.

Hinkle added that management should look more carefully at such gimmicks as employees taking a bogus promotion in their final year in order to receive a more generous pension.

• Laird, who as a legislator advocated health care coverage for all children, reiterated his support, and he and Fitzgerald both advocated for preventive health care.

Hinkle derided that approach as “Obamacare” and “socialized medicine,” which he said “is failing around the world.” He said the government, which he called “incompetent,” is there “to protect our rights, not (provide) health care, education, you name it.”

The event was the first public forum on the Central Coast at which more than one of the candidates appeared.

Blakeslee is a member of the Assembly Republican Budget Working group, which meets Mondays.

Blakeslee said he was “disappointed that the decision was made to schedule tonight’s forum on a date I could not attend.”

The three candidates presented different platforms and personas.

Laird came across as a witty, dedicated career legislator with a strong work ethic and experience both broad and deep, who understands complex problems and has thought long and hard about how to approach them.

Hinkle was the anti-government candidate who believes the smaller the government, the better. Asked how he would restore trust in government, he said he wouldn’t and didn’t want to.

Fitzgerald, who managed a small business for decades, presented himself as a man who understands what it means to be a working stiff.

He positioned himself as the regular guy’s candidate and asked several times why the government couldn’t come up with common sense compromises to problems.

The 15th state Senate District includes all or parts of San Luis Obispo, Santa Clara., Monterey, Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara counties.

In the June 22 primary, Blakeslee finished first in the five-county tally but fell short of the 50 percent he needed to win outright.