Parnell, Walker debate Alaska's fiscal future in Juneau

JUNEAU -- The gubernatorial campaigns tussled over budgets and budget cuts Monday at a debate in Juneau, each trying to sound fiscally conservative, but not too fiscally conservative, in a city reliant like no other in Alaska on government spending.

Gov. Sean Parnell and the Republican Parnell-Dan Sullivan ticket was given a warm reception and vocal support at Monday's debate. But new "unity" ticket challenger Bill Walker, along with Juneau's Byron Mallott, had a smaller cheering section there as well.

Juneau Chamber of Commerce officials said Libertarian Care Clift had been expected to attend but missed her plane.

Walker and Parnell offered sharply contrasting fiscal views of the state, with Parnell saying that increases in oil production that he'd brought about will enable Alaska to keep spending its savings for a longer period of time. He did not promise an end to deficit spending.

He credited that new production to Senate Bill 21, the oil tax cut he proposed and shepherded through the Legislature last year.

"We've stopped the drop in this year -- that was a direct result of Senate Bill 21," Parnell said.

But Walker said the state has too little money coming in to cover its costs, and that will result in years of deficit spending that Parnell is not acknowledging, let alone addressing.


It's because of that that other state entities aren't reining in their spending, pointing to the since-reversed bonus for University of Alaska President Pat Gamble and the Legislature's elegant and spendy new Anchorage office.

"When we don't talk about the deficit, we do things like that," he said.

But Parnell said he has been addressing it, holding up graphs showing cuts in spending to bolster his point.

"I'm actually reducing spending to address it," he said.

He said he reduced spending by "addressing the single largest cost driver in the operating budget," reducing payments on the state's retirement liability.

Parnell said that cutting state spending as much as Walker has said is needed, 16 percent, would be harmful and would disproportionately affect Juneau and its concentration of state employees.

And he proposed more spending for Juneau, including a road north up Lynn Canal that locals are of mixed feelings about, but is a favorite issue of the chamber and drew cheers Monday.

"I remain committed to building the road to and from this great town," he said, and also took credit for extending the existing road 3 miles north to where the new road would start.

Walker said he couldn't yet commit to support local projects like the Juneau road until he knew Alaska could afford them.

"We've got to get our fiscal act together and then see what we can do," he said.

Walker warned that Alaska's budget deficits would threaten progress on the state's natural gas pipeline and other development hopes.

Companies that Alaska needs won't invest here if they see that the state will run out of savings in several years and will be looking at new taxes.

The companies know "they'll have a target on their back" if they come to Alaska, he said.

While presenting stark policy differences, the candidates couldn't help taking a few partisan jabs at each other, even while sometimes acknowledging their irrelevance.

At one point Parnell accused the Walker-Mallott ticket of "disenfranchising" Democrats who had voted for Mallott. They now have no choice but a ticket headed by Walker, a Republican until he joined the unity ticket.

But Walker accused the Republican Party, when the unity ballot was showing a lead, of trying to disenfranchise Alaskans by keeping it off the ballot.

But the best jab was landed not by a candidate but by Juneau Chamber President Max Mertz, who asked each whether they'd be supporting Senate candidate Dan Sullivan or Mark Begich.


Walker squirmed but wouldn't be pinned down on a decision that could drive a wedge in the unity of the unity ticket. "The only campaign sign in my yard is for Walker-Mallott," he said.

For Parnell that was an easy one, and he said he'd be supporting his former Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Sullivan.

And both offered some successful pandering to the locals, always worried about Juneau's place as the capital.

Parnell reminded the chamber how happy they were to have him in the Governor's House following the Palin administration.

Parnell said he "brought the first family back to Juneau and became part of this community."

Walker said he wants to do even more, moving top state department heads to Juneau as well, and that government worked better when cabinet meetings were in person and not by videoconference.

"I plan to live in Juneau, I expect the commissioners to live in Juneau. This is the seat of government in Alaska," he said.

That got him the biggest cheers of the day with the chamber audience that had mostly indicated its preference for Parnell.

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