Alaska’s leading governor candidates continued to compete for the attention of voters on Wednesday in Ketchikan, declaring that this fall’s election will be a referendum on the future of Alaska.
In a forum hosted by Southeast Conference, incumbent independent Gov. Bill Walker, Democrat Mark Begich and Republican Mike Dunleavy answered questions for more than an hour, with each attempting to outline his vision of the future.
“You can stay where you are, you can go back to the past, or you can go into the future,” Begich said, gesturing to Walker, Dunleavy and himself in turn.
The forum was broadcast via Periscope by the Ketchikan Daily News, which said hundreds of people filled the Ted Ferry Civic Center.
— Ketchikan Daily News (@KDNNews) September 12, 2018
Aside from Begich’s remark, which was given in the forum’s closing statements, the three men made few references to each other. That was in part due to the forum’s format, which allowed audience members to ask questions of the three and allowed each a minute to respond.
As with the Juneau Chamber of Commerce forum last week and the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce forum earlier this week, questions were focused on fiscal issues and economics; there were no questions about social issues or crime.
Within that limited scope, the three differed most sharply on their approaches to Alaska’s estimated $700 million billion budget deficit.
Begich offered a three-point plan: Spend half the investment earnings of the Alaska Permanent Fund on dividends and reserve the other half for education; implement efficiency improvements to save money; and then approve a tax to make up the rest.
“You will need some funding. You will need some revenues,” he said, avoiding — as all three candidates did — the word “tax.”
Walker suggested keeping the Permanent Fund appropriation plan approved by the Legislature and building a “full fiscal plan” atop that.
Dunleavy said he would like to see a spending cap “near $4 billion” and a “full” Permanent Fund Dividend on the lines of the traditional statutory levels.
This year, that would have meant a dividend of nearly $3,000 per person, instead of $1,600.
Walker and Begich each attacked Dunleavy’s idea as unrealistic.
“If we want a safer Alaska, how are we going to pay for it?” Walker asked.
According to figures from the nonpartisan Legislative Finance Division, when federal funding and fee-funded programs are excluded, the state’s operating budget is approximately $4.5 billion. Reaching $4 billion would require approximately $500 million in as-yet-unidentified cuts.
Increasing the Permanent Fund Dividend to the historic formula would require an additional $900 million, division analysts said in a report last month.
The expanded deficit could be made good with spending from the Constitutional Budget Reserve, but only for one or two years, depending on the price of oil.
Dunleavy said last week that big new oil finds on the North Slope will result in increased production within “two to seven years,” resolving the deficit.
Walker and Begich have pushed back against that idea, and they did so again in Ketchikan.
“We’ve got to get off that mentality that oil is going to be the rainstorm that comes in and puts out the fire,” Walker said.
Asked about the proposed trans-Alaska gas pipeline, Dunleavy appeared to moderate his position, saying he wants to get into office before making a final decision on whether or not he supports the project.
Dunleavy said he feels important details of the project are locked behind confidentiality agreements, and he can’t judge the project fully until he sees those details.
“Once I’m able to get into the office and able to look at the confidentiality agreements, I’ll have a better idea,” he said.
That’s a change from last year, when Dunleavy called it a “pipeline to nowhere” and attempted to strip the project of state funding.
The pipeline has been driven forward under the Walker administration, and the incumbent said he is “incredibly supportive of it.”
The three men also offered previously unrevealed thoughts about local contributions to the state public employees retirement system and teachers’ retirement system. Begich and Walker each pledged to keep local contributions at their current level, 22 percent.
Dunleavy did not promise as much but said, “This is an issue that was created by the state, and as governor, I’ll deal with it.”
Dunleavy wore a gray suit jacket with a white shirt and red tie; Walker wore a gray jacket and light blue shirt without tie; Begich wore a dark blue jacket with light blue shirt and no tie.
Libertarian candidate Billy Toien was not present.
The three are next scheduled to appear together at a Thursday night candidate forum in Anchorage.
• Contact reporter James Brooks at firstname.lastname@example.org or 523-2258.