Three gubernatorial candidates expressed unity in their general distaste for the policies of Gov. Frank Murkowski’s administration, but are divided on the details.
Republican candidates Sarah Palin and John Binkley, along with Andrew Halcro, a Republican seeking signatures to run as an independent nonpartisan, displayed their differences during a forum hosted by the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce luncheon at Froso’s on Tuesday.
Opening salvos offered before the question-and-answer period saw each candidate speak of a need for change.
Palin, a former Wasilla mayor, quoted the Alaska Constitution and promised to be guided by its principles if elected. Palin said she wants to restore integrity and ethics to the state’s top post, a sentiment echoed by Binkley a few moments later.
“You cannot lead without the trust of the people,” Binkley said. “I am not a person defined by a political career I look at it as service.”
Binkley, a Fairbanks business owner and member of the Alaska legislature during the 1980s, said his business experience would guide his governorship if elected.
Halcro, an Anchorage business owner who served in the legislature from 19992003, also said his business experience would guide his service.
Halcro still needs signatures to appear on the ballot, which he encouraged those at the luncheon to offer.
“By the end of this hour, I guarantee you that you will agree I deserve a place on the ballot,” he said.
Halcro got his first shot at convincing them with a question on the proposed natural gas pipeline. Murkowski has negotiated a deal to build a gas pipeline to carry North Slope gas to the Lower 48 that includes a new profits tax on production and locks in tax rates for decades.
Murkowski’s proposal calls for a pipeline directly from the North Slope to the Lower 48 to be built by ConocoPhillips, BP and ExxonMobil. Some including Palin, according to her campaign Web site have advocated an all Alaska line to Valdez, where gas would then travel via tanker to Lower 48 markets.
Halco said he agrees with the governor at least on the route of the pipeline.
“I think he’s done a good job of getting the agreement on the table,” Halcro said. “Financially, constitutionally, there is no maximum benefit for any other route than the highway route.”
The legislature, Halco said, is now responsible to make a decision on tax rates and their staying power, and what should be done to alter the contract itself. Changes could include benchmarks for pipeline completion, he said, which it does not currently.
Binkley seized on the issue of benchmarks, too.
“The problem with the governor’s proposal is that it does not get the gas line built,” he said.
Binkley said the state should renegotiate the contract, allow independent companies to bid on building the pipeline, and that no agreement should lock in tax rates long-term.
He pointed to Point Thompson, an oil field that remains undeveloped after 25 years of non-binding development plans, as an example of what can happen when no timetables for development are set.
Palin said opening the gas line to competition from independents is important for the project’s future. Undeveloped projects like Point Thompson, which she called ‘essentially our next Prudhoe Bay,” are an embarrassment for Alaska.
“We’re trying to convince the rest of the nation to open ANWR, but we can’t even get Point Thompson open,” she said.
The candidates were divided on the issue of ballot measure 2. The measure would impose a head tax on cruise ship passengers at $50 per person per voyage, tax gaming on the ships, require discharge permits for waste water and require the presence of a licensed engineer on board.
Binkley said he would not be voting for the measure on Aug. 22. The measure will hurt the small businesses that rely on cruise ship passengers’ dollars, he said.
“That’s $50 going to the government and not to business,” he said. “That’s the bottom line it’s gonna hurt small business.”
Palin said she has yet to decide. Palin said local taxpayers including small business owners now foot the bill for needed projects and revenues, and that taxing the untaxed cruise ship industry could ease some of those burdens.
Palin said she wanted to hear small business owners say that small business would suffer before making up her mind.
“My concern is for the mom and pop businesses that’s who I want to talk to,” she said.
Halcro, whose own business supplies rental cars to cruise ship passengers, said he supports the measure. The industry, he said, ought to pay its share.
“When we’re talking about taxing oil companies ... we shouldn’t be saying a multinational industry that pays nothing now shouldn’t pay at all,” Halcro said.
He cautioned the audience not to buy into the anti-tax marketing he said the industry is using to create a “climate of fear.” The industry’s lobbyists, he said, consistently succeed in creating that climate in the legislature.
“This is an industry that has told me to my face that they will never pay the $50 a head tax,” he said.
Unity again emerged when the politics of fisheries management became the topic. All three candidates said subsistence users deserve primacy in management decisions and that the state is obliged to manage for abundance.
Palin said politics should be entirely removed from any management strategy.
“I’m committed to managing for abundance, getting the politics out of the boards and letting good science guide the management decisions.”
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