Sen. Lisa Murkowski responds to a question from Green Party challenger Jim Sykes during a debate before a joint meeting of central peninsula chambers of commerce Wednesday in Kenai.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, squared off against her Green Party opponent Jim Sykes on Tuesday in a spirited question-and-answer-style debate before a packed room at a luncheon in Kenai.
The forum was sponsored by the Kenai, Soldotna and Nikiski chambers of commerce.
Absent was Democratic Party hopeful Tony Knowles, who had been on the peninsula over the weekend. His campaign office said he was committed elsewhere.
All seven senatorial candidates were invited.
Sykes said he is running to restore leadership and trust in government and to ensure Alaskans are represented in Washington, D.C., "instead of the special interests." He said he'd be able to work with both Democrats and Republicans.
He said he's spent the past 20 years "fighting for people's rights," pointing to efforts at establishing the Chase Community Council, working in public radio and serving as executive director of the Alaska Public Interest Research Group. He also noted his efforts at "stopping a raid" on the Alaska Permanent Fund in 1999, on getting the all-Alaska gas line project moving and working to stop the takeover of Arco by BP.
If elected, he said, he would address the major crises impacting Alaska and the nation the rising costs of health care, reaching energy security, education and restoring America's international credibility.
Murkowski, who is running for her first elected six-year term, noted her own accomplishments in the 108th Congress. Among them, she said, was a federal provision for a natural gas pipeline that passed Monday.
"We are talking not only about jobs for Alaskans, we are talking about access to gas for Alaskans. This is key for us in the state, but it is key for the rest of the country to make sure that we do all that we can when we talk about energy security," she said.
Following opening remarks, the candidates were asked to respond to a series of questions.
The first dealt with education and the No Child Left Behind Act, which has been the focus of debate within the educational community.
Murkowski said there were problems with the federal act and how it is being applied.
"All 50 states are not even in the sense of what we are faced with," she said, noting the unique kinds of challenges in Alaska. "We have achievement gaps that are real."
Dealing with that requires flexibility in the law, good standards, accountability and federal dollars, she said.
Sykes said the No Child Left Behind Act is simply a system of punishments applied when school districts don't accomplish the goals. It interferes with decision-making at the local level.
"It needs to become a system of rewards for finding more creative ways of teaching, more creative ways of learning," he said.
Residents with whom he's discussed education across Alaska have expressed the desire to see schools teach children how to survive and thrive within their communities and how to do that wherever they might go in the world, he said.
"Only the local district can make those decisions," he said.
Federal education money should be spent through block grants funneled through the state to the districts. That would help retain local control, he said.
The candidates were asked how they would promote jobs in the borough.
Sykes used the opportunity to discuss the gas pipeline project. He expressed appreciation for Murkowski's efforts on behalf of the gas line, but he also said loan guarantees within the federal bill would apply not only to the all-Alaska line, but also to proposed lines through Canada. An all-Alaska line would terminate in Valdez with a spur to the Southcentral region, or perhaps end at Cook Inlet.
"If it stays within Alaska's borders, as the all-Alaska one will, it will provide security, more jobs for Alaskans during construction and about five times the jobs for Alaskans after construction and bring more to the state," he said.
Sykes added, however, that the bill lacked a jobs-training provision. Without job training, many of the pipeline jobs would go to non-Alaskans, just as they did during the construction of the trans-Alaska pipeline.
Murkowski said some $20 million was included in the federal legislation for job training. She noted the inability of companies such as Agrium to get a reliable supply of gas.
"This is a crime in a state that is loaded, bursting with natural gas," she said. "That's why the gas line is so key to the future of this state."
She said Sykes was correct in citing the need for an all-Alaska line and said it was her legislation in the federal energy bill, now included in the legislation passed Monday, that provides for incentives to be applicable to any qualified project.
Each candidate was asked to explain what they would do to ensure adequate health care and insurance coverage, especially for children.
Murkowski said health care in America was in crisis and in Alaska, one in three is uninsured. She said she has introduced legislation to provide a health insurance tax credit to help families. Small businesses would see a tax deduction when they offer insurance to their employees. It also encourages pooling of risk, she said.
Sykes agreed the country must get control of health care costs.
"Sen. Murkowski's plan, President Bush's plan, candidate Sen. Kerry's plan fall far short," he said. "For the past 14 years I have advocated to make sure that every Alaskan and every American has access to the health care for the treatment they need. We can do it more cheaply than we are doing it now and insure everybody."
He pointed to Canada as an example of a working system.
"In Canada, they insure everybody and the spend 7 percent of their GDP (gross national product)," he said. "In the U.S., we spend 15 percent of our GDP and 45 million Americans have no coverage and another 30 to 40 million are underinsured. We mainly insure the healthy, the wealthy and the very least fortunate among us."
He advocated a single-payer system supported by taxes.
"If somebody has a better idea, I'm open for it, but I haven't heard one," he said.
The candidates were given a chance to ask each other a question. Murkowski inquired how Sykes would pay for a single-payer health-care system without raising taxes. Sykes said costs would actually fall be-cause taxes would be less expensive than the current insurance premiums. Savings elsewhere in the federal budget could provide some funding. He also noted the high cost of defense and the adventure in Iraq that are draining resources that could go to health care. If necessary, such a program could ask employers, government and individuals to contribute, he said.
Sykes asked Murkowski how she would solve the energy security crisis. That 58 percent of the country's energy supply comes from foreign nations is a problem, Murkow-ski said. Yet even if the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge were opened today, she added, it would not end the nation's need to import oil.
"We can attempt to lessen our dependence," she said.
Murkowski said when it comes to natural gas, supply is not meeting demand. She expressed concern that a failure to market Alaska natural gas would leave the nation dependent on foreign sources for that fuel, too.
"That is not where we need to go for energy security," she said.
Sykes asked Murkowski to address the country's diplomacy need, and her stand on the Iraq war. She said the United States has an obligation to reach out and be the facilitator of world peace. She said maintaining good relationships with other nations was important.
"Sometimes we are viewed by other countries as being more aggressive, a bigger bully," she said. "I don't think we go into a conflict, or go into a situation like Iraq and think we are just going to push our way into it. We do utilize diplomacy."
Several questions were posed by audience members.
One concerned the PATRIOT Act passed in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack. It has been assailed by critics as restricting constitutional guarantees.
The current law has given the government the authorization to violate protections against search and seizure, Sykes said. It should be repealed and new laws established, he added. As for the war on terror, he said the nation needs to "out-think our enemies instead of just outshooting them."
Murkowski said she took up the issue of the excesses of the PATRIOT Act shortly after taking office. The law, she said, does need modification, more checks and balances.
Asked about development, Murkowski said no development could take place without access to energy and education.
Sykes said Alaska has watched as Outside interests carted off the profits. He called for the creation of a product-development corporation. He also said hotels should be built, owned and run by Alaskans, noting that much of the tourist industry is controlled by Outside corporations.
"It's almost an accident that some of these tourists come in contact with our economy," he said. "Let's stop being a lemonade stand."
Asked about the missile defense initiative that today is seeing mostly untested anti-ballistic missiles installed at Fort Greely, Sykes said their development had resulted in huge profits for high-tech companies, while leaving Alaska with "chump change."
Murkowski noted the system is not yet perfect, but she said she is glad to have something protecting Alaska and the rest of the country.
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