A midsummer downpour drenching Homer on Friday evening did not dampen public enthusiasm for a political debate at Land’s End Resort between candidates vying to be Alaska’s next governor.
Six of the 13 politicos listed as running by the Alaska Division of Election made the trip to the lower Kenai Peninsula and spoke before a packed room. Two others sent representatives.
Those attending in person included a pair of Democrats Eric Croft, a five-term member of the Alaska House of Representatives from Anchorage, and former two-term governor Tony Knowles; Two Republican hopefuls Sarah Palin, former mayor of Wasilla, and Gerald L. Heikes, a minister from Palmer; Independent candidate Andrew Halcro, former two-term Republican member of the Alaska House; and Anchorage resident Eddie Burke, one of three Alaskan Independence Party candidates.
The other two candidates had prior commitments, but sent representatives to sit on the debate panel.
Sen. Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai, represented Republican candidate John Binkley, of Anchorage, a former state House and Senate member. Republican incumbent Gov. Frank Murkowski sent his campaign manager Mike Scott in his stead.
Reading the political thermometer in the room, the governor avoided a decided chill in the air. His opponents on both the right and left appeared to have greater entrée to listeners’ ears ears that appeared receptive to calls for change.
The two-hour forum, sponsored by the city of Homer, began with five-minute opening statements. Moderator Jim Hornaday, mayor of Homer, asked the candidates to address specifically the issues of municipal revenue sharing and the huge and growing debt owed to public employee and teacher retirement systems, commonly refereed to by the acronym PERS/TRS.
Speaking for Murkowski, Scott told the audience that four years ago the governor faced an $800 million state budget deficit, and the popular municipal revenue sharing program was ended.
“Of course, at the local level it wasn’t met with the greatest of applause,” Scott acknowledged. “That was understandable.”
But things have improved over the past four years, he continued.
“We’ve seen a resurgence in our economy. It’s never been better,” Scott said. “The gross state product is up more than it has ever been in any four years since the pipeline construction.”
Communities, Scott said, had received state aid during the governor’s term including an energy dividend from oil revenue surpluses and relief for PERS/TRS obligations. He said those dollars were twice what communities had been receiving under the old municipal revenue sharing program.
Scott also took the opportunity to extol the virtues of oil and gas legislation passed by lawmakers this week in Juneau.
“What happened last night in the Legislature was nothing short of historic,” he said. “The governor has done something no other governor has been able to do. That is, convince companies to invest $24 billion in this state,” so that Alaskans can reap the benefits of Alaska gas going to market.
Not unexpectedly, other candidates disagreed with Scott’s assessment of the economy, the level of state aid to communities, and the efficacy of the special session legislation and proposed gas contract.
Calling municipal government her foundation, Palin said she was a strong proponent of municipal revenue sharing.
“I say, let’s trickle down that state wealth and let’s put it in the hands of those that can prioritize it best,” she said.
On the natural gas line project, Palin said Alaska needed industry competing for the right to tap resources so a gas line would keep the Alaska Permanent Fund permanent.
She said PERS/TRS pensions amounted to contracts to be honored.
Speaking for Binkley, Wagoner said the candidate favored a permanent municipal assistance and revenue sharing program.
Burke took issue with new petroleum profits tax legislation, saying children would pay the price ‘for a bad deal” in the future. “We flat gave away the farm” to corporations that would take away Alaska’s wealth, he said.
Burke said he disapproved of calls for a revival of municipal revenue sharing.
“Mark my words, municipal revenue sharing is code for raiding the (Permanent Fund) dividend,” he said.
Croft said the current political struggle over who will control Alaska’s gas resources is the same kind of battle Alaskans have been obliged to wage for generations.
“Very large, Outside corporate interests want to control what we have in oil, in fish, in every area of Alaska’s resources,” he said. “Not just get the profit out of it, that’s great. But actually control it. What Gov. Murkowski proposed is so outrageous, I think it took people some time to get their heads around it that we would sign away the right to make oil and gas decisions for 30 to 45 years.”
Croft said it was no longer a question of money.
“It’s a question of who’s the sovereign?” he said.
He also urged listeners not to buy into the “false choice” between municipal assistance and a permanent fund dividend.
In his opening remarks, Halcro harkened back to 1999 when the House passed “the first-ever fiscal plan” at a time when oil prices were hovering around $10 a barrel. That plan, eventually rejected overwhelmingly by voters, included protections for municipal revenue sharing, he said.
Today, Alaska has been “failed by politics,” he said. There is no health in the statewide economy unless local economies are healthy, too, he added.
Halcro said he would reinstate municipal revenue sharing, but would use interest earnings of the Permanent Fund to finance it.
“There is no other way,” he said.
With regard to PERS/TRS, Halcro said local communities should not be held responsible for results of the state’s failure to maintain oversight of those programs.
Knowles said that when he was governor there was a need for fiscal discipline because of the low price of oil. Nevertheless, things like municipal sharing, education, the Denali Kid Care Program and others were funded in an atmosphere of compromise.
“Yes, I had arguments with the Legislature, but it wasn’t about if we were going to cut, but often about how much and what the priorities were,” he said. “We worked things out.”
He said it was time to end what he called the current administration’s “cut and run” policies that “have left communities alone and under siege.” He said there should be a sustainable revenue sharing program.
Heikes admitted he was likely the least known candidate for governor. He also acknowledged he new little of the details of many of the hot issues.
He said he was running for five reasons to oppose abortion, a desire to see pedophiles put away forever, opposition to same-sex civil unions or marriages, support for English, and because he is a Christian. Democrats would love to run against him, he said, because his stands make it easy to shoot him down.
“I’ve just painted a big target on my chest,” he said.
Each of the candidates was asked their position on of the proposed Pebble Mine that Northern Dynasty Mines Inc. wants to build northwest of Iliamna.
Palin, a commercial fisherman in Bristol Bay, said she would never support something that risked one resource for another.
“It kind of scares me that Northern Dynasty is making some promises that I don’t know if they can keep,” she said.
But she said it was too early to reach a final decision.
Scott said Murkowski had “rejuvenated the mining industry.” He said it was too early to know what the impacts of a Pebble mine would be, but added that the governor would not allow anything to damage the resources of Bristol Bay. But done right, he said, a mine would produce much-needed jobs.
The low-toned murmurs that coursed through much of the audience during Scott’s comments about Pebble were in sharp contrast to the cheers erupting when others flatly stated their opposition to the mine.
Knowles said Pebble was “an unacceptable risk to one of the world’s most productive areas.”
“You have to ask yourself,” Halcro said, “Is Alaska at a time where we are going to entertain the largest open-pit mine in the world at the head of some of the most valuable salmon grounds in the world? I would say no.”
Halcro took issue with Scott’s suggestion that the Murkowksi administration had stimulated mining.
“The governor hasn’t done anything to stimulate mining. What’s stimulating mining is that commodity prices are three times what they were four years ago,” he said.
Croft called putting such a mine in such an area “a dumb idea.
“When Gov. Murkowski ensures us he’s going to do everything to protect the environment, I just don’t buy it,” he said.
Burke said Alaska was a resource state and that there was a need to find a way to do a mine right.
“We need to do things to create economies, create growth, create jobs for our children,” he said.
Heikes said he wanted more information, but thought the fishing industry needed to survive in Bristol Bay more than there needed to be a mine.
Wagoner said he wouldn’t speak for Binkley on the issue.
Murkowski’s challengers all said essentially that they opposed so-called “unfunded mandates” from the state government that impose requirements on local communities but offer no means by which to pay for them.
Scott said there had been arguments about unfunded mandates for 30 years, but that the Murkowski administration had not pushed things on to municipal governments and that the governor had remained accessible to their representatives.
Candidates were asked about education.
Scott said the Murkowksi administration had focused some of the oil price surplus on education, especially deferred maintenance projects.
Palin said education should be forward funded.
Heikes said he was more worried about the state of public school curricula, and urged a return to basics.
Knowles said he wanted to build the nation’s best education system and fully fund K-12 schools, fund an early learning program and build technical and vocational schools.
Halcro said he supports continuing to fund of education out of the general fund, but proposed creating education savings accounts out of a portion of the money paid out each year in Alaska Permanent Fund dividend checks to children roughly 180,000 last year alone.
Croft said Alaskans shouldn’t simply “tolerate keeping our schools on life support.” He has proposed a “time to teach” plan, a grant program to help cut class sizes in kindergarten through fourth grade.
All the candidates appearing or represented by others at the Homer forum but Halcro will appear on various primary election ballots Aug. 22. As an independent, Halcro faces no primary challenger and will be on the general election ballot in November.
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