Gubernatorial candidates Sarah Palin, Andrew Halcrow and Tony Knowles exchange handshakes following a debate before a joint meeting of the Soldotna, Kenai and Nikiski chambers of commerce Wednesday afternoon at the Challenger Center of Alaska in Kenai.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Candidates for governor debating in Kenai on Wednesday promised boosted funding for schools, solutions to the rising cost of health care and significant advances toward a natural gas pipeline project, but they often differed on how best to meet those goals.
Speaking to a packed room at the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska, Republican Sarah Palin, Democrat Tony Knowles and Independent candidate Andrew Halcro fielded questions and attempted to define how they see the role of governor and how they’d approach the job.
Education was a major topic of concern for residents living in a school district that has been shortchanged for years by current state funding distribution policies. The candidates were asked to step forward four years and say what they would have accomplished in education during a term in the governor’s chair.
“Pre-K will have been expanded beyond Title 1 and children will show up for kindergarten and first grade ready to read and learn,” Halcro said.
He promised he would reinstate physical education programs, increase the use of technology in middle schools, expand vocational education opportunities in high schools and said there would be promised a dramatic decline in dropout rates, as well as compulsory attendance through age 17.
Knowles said there would be an early learning program for 3- and 4-year-olds. He would address children’s health and nutrition, and the area cost differential problem would be fixed. He also said the dropout rate would fall.
“We are going to have teachers who want to be teachers because of a defined benefit retirement system,” he said.
Palin promised that Alaska would be forward funding education by four years from now, a practice that should have been instituted already, she added.
“I’m going to implement it,” she said.
Concerning health care costs, the candidates generally agreed that there needed to be flexibility in the hospital certificate-of-need procedures, that the worrisome shortage of physicians, nurses and health-care workers in Alaska must be addressed by expanding educational opportunities so that Alaskans can fill those positions, and that part of keeping workmen’s compensation costs under control for employers would involve prevention programs at the workplace and elsewhere.
A question concerning whether they supported state funding of abortions elicited a sharp difference of opinion between Knowles and the other two. Halcro said he did and would support state contributions to Medicaid money which can go to pay for abortions for low-income women; and Palin said it was “a different issue” when abortion was necessary to protect the life of the mother.
She also said she would support state funding for contraception. But aside from those exceptions, Halcro and Palin clearly said they did not support state funding for abortions, which they called “elective” procedures.
“It’s not an elective procedure like fixing your nose,” Knowles said, eyes fixed on his opponents. “I don’t believe there is any place where a governor should stand between a woman and her doctor.”
The candidates were asked if they could ever support a sales or income tax as a way to generate revenues. Palin said no, explaining she considers taxes “a disincentive for a strong work ethic and productivity.”
Halcro noted that with 90 cents of every dollar the state gets coming from oil, it is never easy to fill holes in the budget.
“My theory is we all receive a dividend, every Alaskan should help pay for government,” he said, adding that earnings of the permanent fund should not be off limits either. He called those earnings “new money; it’s Wall Street money.”
Knowles said that when he was governor in the late 1990s, oil was about $9 a barrel and the state faced a huge budget gap. He and the legislative leadership hammered out a fiscal plan that cut spending and introduced efficiencies. When that wasn’t enough, Knowles attempted to introduce an income tax. He said the last place the state should go, however, is the earnings of the permanent fund.
“Andrew and I have a legitimate difference on that, but at least we are looking to a plan,” he said.
All three candidates said they would support using state funds to match federal grants aimed at addressing the bluff erosion problems around Kenai. However, Halcro said it was going to be harder to get federal funding in the future and that “the gravy train days are just about over.”
The candidates also agreed it would be a serious matter if outgoing Gov. Frank Murkowski were to sign a gas line contract with ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips and BP before leaving office.
“I really hope that he doesn’t do that,” Palin said, adding she recently met with the governor and his chief of staff Jim Clark to ask them specifically to hold off. She said they should leave the fiscal interest findings, decisions about the Point Thompson gas fields and other contract-related decisions to the next governor.
She also said the governor’s negotiated contract still makes too many concessions.
“It could put Alaska in a bind; maybe a bind we can’t recover from without much litigation,” she said.
Knowles said it would be “a serious mistake” to sign a contract almost surely to be rejected by the next Legislature and the public at large. But what really would bind the next governor would be if Murkowski were to “let ExxonMobil off the hook” with regards to the Point Thompson gas lease it holds.
That gas, he said, represented 22 percent of all the North Slope gas and some 200 million barrels of gas liquids that could flow down the trans-Alaska pipeline now. He said he urged Murkowski in a recent letter not to allow ExxonMobil to renege on its promise to develop the gas or get out of the way.
Halcro took a different tack. He has called the Murkowski contract “a good foundation” and a place from which to start. Asked about alternative competing proposals, Halcro said the only realistic approach to a gas line was through the major producers, the only companies anywhere near big enough to tackle the $30 billion project. Anything else, he said, was “all nonsense.” He acknowledged that Murkowski’s contract had problems that would have to be addressed.
Both Knowles and Palin have said they are ready and willing to entertain other proposals, as well as Murkowski’s deal, and quickly settle on one that meets Alaska’s needs. Knowles has said he would present a contract to lawmakers for their consideration by the end of the session in May.
The candidates talked about their approach to the office they hope to hold a month from now.
“Let’s really put partisanship aside in order to build the team needed to solve the challenges,” Palin said. Alaskan’s “deserve trust and transparency” in government, she said.
“Candidates need to tell you how they would govern and then actually govern that way,” Halcro said.
Campaigning, Knowles said, is like governing in that it requires not only speaking on issues, but listening, as well. He called these “historic times.”
“Remember, the candidate you see is the governor you’ll get,” he said.
Hal Spence can be reached at email@example.com.
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