In the first governor forum this campaign season that included Gov. Sean Parnell, candidates tried to distinguish themselves Monday on education reform and oil taxes, priorities for the economy and the state's big natural gas pipeline project.
Democrat Byron Mallott and independent candidate Bill Walker, who like Parnell is a Republican, have met at multiple debates already. Parnell chose not to participate in any until after the legislative session, which finally ended Friday, five days late. He said Monday's event was the first of 10 he has committed to.
The forum was sponsored by the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce as part of its Make it Monday series and sold out to a ticketed crowd of 178, according to the chamber.
The candidates didn't ask each other questions, but answered those drawn up by a chamber committee.
Walker hammered away at the state's budget deficit, Mallott's sharpest bite came on education, and Parnell defended the most controversial legislation from his administration, the oil tax cuts passed last year in Senate Bill 21.
The candidates differed sharply on oil and gas issues.
They were asked whether they support a ballot referendum aiming to repeal the SB 21 oil-tax cuts.
"Absolutely not," Parnell said. He argued the tax cuts are necessary to curb a decades-long decline in North Slope production. He said the law already is making a difference and talked about "the new jobs that are flooding our state."
Walker said he supports the repeal of the cuts.
The prior tax system, the Palin-era Alaska's Clear and Equitable Share passed after the previous tax structure became the subject of federal corruption cases, brought in more money at high oil prices and may have needed adjustment at the top end, Walker said.
But "if it hadn't been for ACES, we'd be Detroit today," he said. "ACES built up a savings account that we are living off of today." Without that, the state would be in debt, he said.
The solution is incentives to bring in more oil companies working beyond the giant oil fields of Prudhoe Bay and Kuparuk, Walker said.
Mallott didn't give a direct answer but mentioned the state's own revenue forecasts predict declining production for the next decade. When pressed last year at his campaign kickoff, he said he intended to vote for the referendum, to repeal the tax cuts.
"So many Alaskans wonder about the fairness of what is involved," Mallott said.
Walker repeatedly brought up state projections of continuing budget deficits.
Parnell said in his annual address to the Legislature in January that the state had never been stronger.
That's wrong, Walker said.
"We're going to be in the red for the next 10 years," Walker said, as his time for opening remarks ran out.
Andrew Halcro, the chamber president and forum moderator, asked what percentage each would put on the prospect of the administration's natural gas project and pipeline being built.
Zero, Walker said. The latest configuration is about No. 401 of various pipeline proposals over the decades, he said.
Fifty percent, said Mallott, putting the likelihood at 100 percent if he were elected.
Parnell said he was 100 percent certain the project would get through the next stage of engineering and design.
The governor tagged this the "education session" in the Legislature and got through a reform package including increased funding. But the base student allocation, the funding formula that districts rely on, got only a small increase.
"It is not an education session of the Alaska Legislature when you pass the education funding bill on the 94th-or-5th day of the 90-day session," Mallott said. Schools need consistent funding, he said.
Reach Lisa Demer at email@example.com or 257-4390.
By LISA DEMER