JUNEAU — Some of the sharpest jabs during a relatively tame debate Thursday featuring the major candidates for governor in Alaska were aimed at Republican nominee Mike Dunleavy.
The conservative former state senator said later that his rivals, independent Gov. Bill Walker and Democrat Mark Begich, could see him as the one to beat and the one who concerns them the most.
“They should. I think I’ve got some great ideas to get us out of this,” he said.
Alaska fell into a recession after a crash in oil prices that also exploded the size of the state's budget deficit. Prices have since moderated, and lawmakers, who blew through billions of dollars in savings amid gridlock over how best to tackle the deficit, this year decided to use earnings from the state's oil-wealth fund, the Alaska Permanent Fund, to help fill much of the remaining gap.
Issues in the governor's race include the future of the annual dividend check that residents receive from permanent fund earnings, crime and the economy.
During the forum, hosted by the Greater Juneau Chamber of Commerce, Begich said the numbers don't add up in Dunleavy's plans to pay a full Permanent Fund dividend. Dunleavy said that although oil prices fluctuate, they recently have been above $70 a barrel, and there is potential for more oil being produced in the next several years. He said he also supports finding efficiencies in government to further reduce the size of the budget.
"You can't bank all the time on the price of oil, Sen. Dunleavy," Begich said, adding that at some point new revenues will be needed. He called Dunleavy's approach a short-term plan that threatens the fund's earnings reserve.
Walker pressed Dunleavy on where he would cut government costs. "It fits on a bumper sticker, but I'm not sure where it comes from," Walker said.
He pointed to a January 2017 article in which Dunleavy suggested seeking $1.1 billion in cuts over four years as part of a fiscal plan. Oil prices were around $50 a barrel then.
Dunleavy said he wants to reduce the budget and limit its growth. But he did not specifically say where he’d cut. He said he supported deeper cuts when oil prices were lower, while Walker proposed taxes that Dunleavy said would have “destroyed the economy.”
Both Walker and Begich have talked about the need for some kind of additional revenue. "I know Sen. Dunleavy doesn't want to answer that question at all, ever," said Begich, a former U.S. senator and mayor of Anchorage.
All three expressed support for the state ferry system and for keeping Juneau as the state capital.