The gubernatorial debates kicked off on Tuesday in Soldotna with Republican incumbent Sean Parnell and Democratic challenger Ethan Berkowitz squaring off.
Alaska Independence Party candidate Donald Wright was not at the joint Kenai-Soldotna Chamber of Commerce luncheon.
In a race that has been overshadowed by the drama between Republican U.S. Senate candidate Joe Miller and defeated incumbent, Lisa Murkowski, Parnell and Berkowitz used the venue at the Soldotna Sport Center to establish their differences.
Berkowitz launched his presentation by saying that the Kenai Peninsula "feels different," from his treks to the region years ago.
He argued that the region has lost jobs and with it, vibrancy. It was a picture he tried to paint repeatedly through the debate, saying the state's current woes were the fault of the current leadership.
While Parnell agreed with his opponent that key industries on the Peninsula were hurting, through the hour-long dialogue he repeatedly thrummed upon past actions as examples of both experience and strong leadership.
The first topic the candidates opened up on was federal funding. Parnell and Berkowitz were asked to speak to how they would recoup federal dollars the state stands to lose in the future.
Parnell argued that the state was already too reliant on getting money from the federal government.
"It's not just about how much more federal money can we get, but turning away federal money with purse strings," he said.
He added that the state would continue to get its fair share of funding, but that it should not work in ways to, "drive this nation deeper into debt."
Berkowitz countered that the state deserved federal monies, citing a need for improvement to infrastructure or the freedom to develop its resources.
He slightly offset that, though, when he said, "We've got to be aware of the realities that the federal government is going broke and we've got to do more to take care of ourselves."
The two also debated what costs they expected the state would face with the implementation of federal health care legislation.
Berkowitz criticized Parnell for his decision to sue the federal government, saying, "Alaska needs health care, and we have the opportunity to do things for ourselves."
He characterized Parnell's decision as one that was politically driven, arguing that uninsured Alaskans were still suffering.
Parnell defended his decision to join the 20-state lawsuit, though.
"I think that if we can reclaim our freedom in this, we can say no to a government-run health care plan," he said.
Both candidates voiced support of expanding programs to train medical professionals in state, improving facilities and technology and expanding options for small businesses.
The two were also given the opportunity to air their differences on conflicts between the state and federal agencies. Perhaps most notable to this area is the listing of the Cook Inlet beluga whale under the Endangered Species Act.
Berkowitz again attacked Parnell and his predecessor's track record.
"You could sue and not do, which seems to be the course that Sean is taking," he said. "Or you could pick up the phone and start talking to people."
He went on to say that the state should vie for a working relationship with federal agencies rather than a hostile one.
Parnell was quick to counter that he has tried to reach out to federal agency leaders and noted that he's had "numerous" meetings with Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.
He said as well that he was recently turned down in a request to meet with the secretary regarding the current moratorium on offshore drilling.
"You have got to ask, who's going to stand up for Alaska, the person with Alaska values, or the person who stood up for President Obama during the election," Parnell said. "When the time for talk is over, the time for action is at hand."
The two also took on issues closer to home, including the development of an energy plan for the state.
Parnell pointed out that by 2025 the state has mandated that it produce 50 percent of its power from renewable resources, and said that a large-scale hydro project was the best way to achieve this.
He said the challenge now was determining how to finance such an undertaking.
Berkowitz was perhaps his most aggressive at any point during the forum in saying that he believed the state had squandered numerous opportunities to develop renewable resources in the past. He honed in on the energy rebates that were distributed to Alaskans in 2008 as a key example.
"We didn't do one thing with that money as a state to change the way we produce or distribute energy in Alaska," he said.
He said the state needs to establish better rules and regulations surrounding independent power production.
He also argued that if the state had been more bullish on developing other energy sources instead of relying so heavily on natural gas, the Agrium plant in Nikiski might have remained viable.
In developing a natural gas pipeline, Berkowitz argued that the current administration was taking too long and relying too heavily on oil companies to do the legwork.
"Our posture seems to be, we're desperate for the revenue of gas, so please develop a gas pipeline," Berkowitz said.
He argued that the project should be financed by private citizens, businesses and corporations.
Parnell jested at the idea and argued that the private sector would develop the project best.
He expressed confidence in the current open season process, and said that while it has been a long wait, it was also the nature of oil and gas production.
Dante Petri can be reached at email@example.com.
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