Alaska’s three candidates for governor met at Wednesday’s joint chamber luncheon to discuss issues affecting Alaska and the peninsula.
The conference room at the Soldotna Sports Center was packed tight as former U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, Gov. Bill Walker and former state Sen. Mike Dunleavy gave their opening remarks.
Begich, who was born and raised in Anchorage, told the crowd he is in the election to focus on the future of Alaska. He said he wants to focus on creating opportunity and keeping young people in Alaska.
Walker focused his opener on the Alaska Liquefied Natural Gas project, which he said was a major opportunity for Alaska and the Kenai Peninsula. He said he doesn’t always make popular decisions, but that he makes them for the future of Alaska.
Dunleavy said Alaska is a magical place, which is what brought him up here in 1983. He said Alaska is full of opportunities, but people in the state have run out of optimism, good policies and leadership.
The first question for the candidates asked how they felt using Permanent Fund Dividend earnings to balance the budget.
Walker said there was no solution that didn’t involve using earnings to balance.
“It has got to be part of it,” Walker said. “It’s what’s allowed us to be only 30 percent dependent on oil, not 90 percent.”
Dunleavy said using the earnings now is part of the solution moving forward. He said the way it was done before was the wrong thing to do at the time, and that the people should have been engaged.
“Don’t change something that isn’t broke,” Dunleavy said. “Our spending needs to be contained.”
Begich said he would take it out of the hands of the legislature.
“When you leave it in the hands of the legislature they will debate and argue about how big the dividend will be,” Begich said. “They will debate this issue and not the issues affecting Alaska.”
When it comes to the governor’s role in advising federal agencies on the endangered animal species act, and the designation of Cook Inlet belugas, both Begich and Walker expressed the need to support protections of belugas.
Begich also said it is important to recognize that politicians are not scientists, and it is the governor’s role to provide good scientific research when needed.
Dunleavy said balance is important when it comes to working with fellow delegations on endangered species designations.
“We’re not going to sacrifice the economic future of Cook Inlet, and this area, for an overkill, or over designation that may not suit the needs of the time,” Dunleavy said. “There has to be a balance.”
All of the candidates said they agreed with the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge when it came to the recent federal tax reform. Begich said it was a problem that the reform offers relief for corporate entities, but not individuals.
Both Walker and Dunleavy said the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would be a benefit for Alaska.
Addressing Alaska’s growing homelessness issue, the candidates said a better economy and easier access to mental health treatment could alleviate the rise. All of the candidates agreed the problem is not a simple one.
When it comes to prioritization over commercial, sport and personal use fishing, all of the candidates agreed that it’s important to share Alaska’s bounty and have a balance.
Walker said he wants everyone at the table, to contribute ideas and knowledge to tackle issues. He created an advisory committee where he said he brought everyone together to talk about these issues.
Begich said everyone is part of the solution. He said he would make sure there was a fisheries advisor inside the governor’s office to advise on these issues.
Dunleavy said this issue would be one of his top priorities as governor, and that the state needs to manage fisheries better.
The candidates had different ideas on how to market Alaska as a tourist destination.
Dunleavy said he first learned about Alaska through movies, TV and magazines. He said these images spoke for themselves. He wants to use Alaska’s rental car tax money and use it towards tourism marketing, growing the number of travelers.
Walker said he moved tourism marketing to the private sector. He has focused on Asia-Alaska relations, and said he took 50 Alaskans to Asia to work on getting direct flights from Asia to Alaska.
Begich said marketing is a prolonged process. He also said it would be good to use the rental car tax money for marketing, but to a limit so it can’t be taken and used for other things.
Both Begich and Dunleavy agree that SB 91 needs to be repealed.
To tackle the opioid crisis, Begich said it’s important to not just focus on opioids, but to focus on all substance abuse.
Walker said it was important to get more troopers, provide them more benefits, so they don’t move away to King County, Washington. He said focusing on the opioid crisis will bring down crime.
Dunleavy said the state should increase the number of prosecuting attorneys and get prepared for a spike in individuals coming into Alaska prisons.
Both Walker and Dunleavy support the Stand for Alaska campaign because they believe Alaska Ballot Initiative 1 could create uncertainty in upcoming projects. Begich said he is a supporter of the Stand for Salmon campaign.
Both Walker and Begich said they supported Medicaid expansion because it resulted in the opportunity to give 44,000 Alaskans health care.
“We have to do everything we can to make sure our working folks have health care,” Begich said.
“Health care is critical to Alaskans,” Walker said.
Dunleavy said it’s a broken system that needs some overhaul.
“It’s something we got to work on because it’s unsustainable,” Dunleavy said.
The LNG project is gearing up to be in Nikiski, however, Port Mackenzie and Valdez have put their name in the hat to be considered the base for the highly anticipated project. When it comes to keeping it in Nikiski, Walker said the project should come to Nikiski. Begich and Dunleavy said it should go to the best site, whether or not that is Nikiski.
The candidates outlined many challenges facing the state’s education system. Begich said it was important for Alaskan teachers to stay and teach in the system, wherever in the state it may be.
“If we don’t have Alaskans teaching Alaskans, we are going to lose out in the long run,” Begich said.
Both Walker and Dunleavy agreed there should be more career tech classes offered in high school.
Begich and Dunleavy did not support a sales or income tax, but Walker said Alaska needs a broad base tax to support the budget.
When it comes to addressing the unsafe conditions that were investigated at the Alaska Psychiatric Institute, the candidates agreed that something needed to be done.
Walker said the institute needed more funding to fully staff the facility, and more treatment beds.
Dunleavy said poor management is affecting many programs across the state.
Begich said the mental health services in Alaska are in crisis and that the state is going to solve these complex issues.
Alaskans will have the opportunity to choose their new governor on the November ballot.