Gov. Parnell, challenger Samuels spar over state spending

Sean CockerhamMcClatchy-Tribune News Service
Jeff Schultz /

Legislators met with Gov. Sean Parnell this week, asking him not to veto their hometown projects from a multibillion-dollar construction budget he calls way too big. But Ralph Samuels, one of Parnell's opponents in the Republican primary for governor, is telling voters it's Parnell who let spending balloon in Juneau.

Samuels is swinging hard at Parnell going into the Aug. 24 primary election. He's telling voters that the governor failed to show leadership and control overspending by legislators during the legislative session that ended this month.

"Frankly his veto threat is like saying you can clean up an avalanche with a dustpan and broom," Samuels told the East Anchorage Rotary last week, in what's becoming a theme as he campaigns.

The Parnell campaign responds that Samuels himself is the big spender.

"Governor Parnell has a clear record of being fiscally responsible as a legislator and now as governor. Ralph Samuels, on the other hand, voted to more than double Alaska's operating budget in his short six years of legislative service. Ralph should spend more time on facts, and less time on political attacks," said Parnell's campaign manager, Michelle Toohey.

Toohey said Samuels' record shows he voted in 2008 for a state operating budget that included $5.2 billion in state general funds, compared to $2.4 billion five years earlier.

Samuels was the House majority leader at the time of that 2008 vote, a year when legislators were spending and saving billions of dollars from record high oil prices. Members of the Republican-led majority commit to their caucus to vote for the budget. The only votes against it in the House came from Democrats.

Samuels did speak out on the floor of the House. "I'll vote for the budget, but we can't sustain it," Samuels told his colleagues. "It will not work, and Alaskans will suffer."

Arguments over who likes spending less will likely continue through the Aug. 24 election, as the candidates attempt to win over voters in a Republican Party primary that's closed to Democratic voters. Another top candidate in the primary, Bill Walker, has also criticized state spending, saying it's not sustainable without more oil production.

Parnell said it will be weeks before he decides what to veto from the $3.1 billion capital budget, which is generally for construction and maintenance projects. He scheduled 15-minute meetings with legislators this week so they can pitch their projects.

Samuels says Parnell will take credit for vetoing projects when the real problem is growth in the operating budget, which is bigger and funds agencies, services, and education. Samuels told a University of Alaska Anchorage audience last week that it grew 10 percent over the previous year. There needs to be leadership "willing to say no to some programs," given the decline in oil production, he said.

"Governing is not looking in the rear-view mirror at the accident you just helped cause, and then trying to find political advantage," he said.

It's the Legislature that decides how much the state spends, including a number of Samuels supporters like Anchorage Republican Rep. Mike Hawker, who is in charge of putting together the operating budget in the House. But Samuels said it is the governor's role to engage, set limits, and keep spending in check.

Parnell said during the Alaska Republican Party convention this month that his budget proposal to the Legislature called for just 2.2 percent growth in spending on state agencies. Automatic increases such as funding formulas for education and Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor, drove that over 8 percent, he said.

"I'm looking forward to working with you on a plan to reduce Medicaid and education spending if that's what you want to do," he told Samuels during a candidate forum.

Find Sean Cockerham online at or call him at 257-4344.