Our View: Governor should accept debate challenge

January 24, 2013 

Gov. Sean Parnell has thus far declined state Sen. Bill Wielechowski's challenge to a debate over oil taxes in Alaska. He should reconsider for three good reasons.

• First, oil taxes remain the most important issue before the Legislature and the people of Alaska. Whatever lawmakers vote to do and the governor signs into law will have a long reach into Alaska's future and may even define Alaska's future. While the governor remains adamant about the need to overhaul ACES and cut the companies' tax bill, he has rethought and revised his proposals. He should be willing and able to make his case against hard questions.

• Second, the governor should see this as an opportunity to do what his administration has not done to date, and that is explain what he's doing and why he believes it will work. In both 2011 and 2012, the campaigns to cut taxes were long on rallies and short on specifics. Even supporters of the governor's position found it embarrassing that the administration couldn't answer tough questions.

Now is the time to answer such questions to the satisfaction of Alaskans, who will live with the consequences, good or ill.

• Third, such a debate -- if done right -- can clarify the issue for Alaskans. Exactly how much will we give up? What will it mean for the state's budget? What do we get in return? Any guarantees?

Both Parnell and Wielechowski would have the opportunity to distill power points and numbing numbers to their essentials. That's distill, not dumb down.

Wielechowski would have to prove up as well as Parnell. What's his alternative and why is it better? Does it stand up to economic reality? How does he answer the governor's questions?

The governor argues that such a debate would be more political theater than contribution to understanding, and that he can't open the door to debates with individual legislators over every issue. Sure, there's the political element. Politicians are involved. But the real purpose would be to put the oil tax issue, in detail, front and center to the wider public. No governor should make a habit of debating individual legislators. But this issue is exceptional for what's at stake.

Conservative radio host and consultant Mike Porcaro has offered two hours of air time -- a marathon in these days of sound bites and Twitter feeds. If the governor agreed to debate, we'd bet Porcaro would have company, and it would be a public service to have a tough, thoughtful, intelligent debate on radio, television and streaming online.

Parnell also said he believes the vetting of his oil tax proposal in legislative committees, with testimony and questioning, will be debate enough. We disagree. The legislative process is vital and lawmakers will have the final decision. But the more we air this issue, challenging assumptions and claims on both sides, the more likely Alaska will come to a conclusion that works -- that is, in the governor's words, fair and boosts oil production for a long time to come.

For more than two years, Gov. Parnell has led the charge on overhauling ACES. If he's now got the goods, they should stand up in the heat of debate with one of his sharpest critics. If not, we may need to do something else. A debate by the leaders of opposite sides on the issue, with a wealth of information at their command, is one more way to find out.

BOTTOM LINE: Governor should accept challenge to debate oil-tax issue.

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