Alaska's fiscal crisis has been exacerbated by the lack of dialogue between the legislative and executive branches in Juneau, and that's something he can fix if elected governor next fall, Sen. Frank Murkowski told a Soldotna Rotary luncheon audience Thursday.
"We can't have a standoff," he said. "What drove the decision (to run now) is that we have to turn around the direction of Alaska."
He said there is a "significant no-growth syndrome" in Juneau.
The looming budget gap notwithstanding, there has never been a better time to make a run for the Alaska governor's mansion, he said. As if his political planets were aligning, the four-term Republican from Fairbanks has a Republican in the White House, two experienced Republican colleagues in the congressional delegation, a Republican majority in Juneau and a lame-duck governor who cannot run again. Add to that the fact that Republicans lost control of the U.S. Senate to Democrats last year and with it the real seats of power, the committee chairmanships. At this point, Murkowski thinks he can do more in Juneau than he can in Washington, he said.
The Alaska Legislature faces tough decisions trying to match spending and revenues. Balancing the budget will mean tapping the Constitutional Budget Reserve to the tune of $865 million this year alone. Lawmakers say taxes and other revenue generators are under consideration, but the job won't be finished in one session. Thus, the next legislature and whomever is governor will have to continue the effort.
In an interview with the Peninsula Clarion following the luncheon, Murkowski pointed to some areas that could be considered.
"It's been suggested that there be a freeze on hiring. The merits of that depend on whether you can reduce personnel by identifying duplication in government and so forth," he said. "I'm not suggesting that it's a cure-all, but it is reasonable to begin to pursue and question."
Other savings might be found in streamlining the permitting processes by which Alaska makes its raw resources available to extraction companies, he said. It may be possible to streamline those procedures, and he'd compare Alaska's regulations with those of other resource-rich states.
"Are we in synch? The suggestion is we are not. The question is why?" he said. "We deserve an explanation."
Preventing some degree of growth in government could be impossible, Murkowski said, but there may be discipline enough in capping growth at 3 or 4 percent. But if Alaskans are to be asked to make a sacrifice, they should be sure their government is as efficient as it can be, he added.
He warned that unless measures are taken to bring spending under control and raise revenues, the state will continue to tap its budget reserve.
"If we deplete that, the only thing left is the principal of the permanent fund.
Would he consider a cap on the size of the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend?
"I'd prefer to expand revenues so the permanent fund would continue to grow," he said, noting, however, that future dividends are likely to be smaller because of the current decline in the stock market.
Murkowski praised America's willingness to sacrifice in the war on terrorism. Then he drew a link between the terrorist threat and the need to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, which he said would serve to lower the nation's dependence on foreign oil.
"If you look at what funds terrorism," he said, "a good deal of that funding is associated with oil production in the Middle East. Look at the background of those who are involved in terrorist activities, and you'll find, rather curiously, Saudi passports, connections to Iran, connections to Iraq. I'm not condemning those countries. I'm simply saying that, clearly, terrorist activities have been identified with that part of the world."
Opening the refuge wouldn't be the whole solution, he said, but it would be "a logical contribution." The chances for the opening of ANWR are "better than they've ever been," he said.
Murkowski also said he'd like to see the estimated 36 trillion cubic feet of gas reserves in Prudhoe Bay tapped. He supports a southern route for a gas pipeline and said some of the gas should be available for use by Alaskans.
"The future of this state is associated with resources," he said. "The good news is the resources are still here. We've got to figure out how to use the technology, the ingenuity, the marketing and the quality control" to bring those to market.
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