Four of Alaska's five declared gubernatorial candidates Wednesday offered ideas for stabilizing the state's economy.
The participants in a Juneau forum also said they would never use Gov. Frank Murkowski's controversial new jet.
KTUU television reporter Bill McAllister moderated the Alaska State Chamber of Commerce forum at the Baranof Hotel. The candidates seeking to replace Murkowski, a Republican, this November debated for the first time at last month's Alaska AFL-CIO convention.
For several years, the chamber has asked the executive branch for a long-range fiscal plan, relief on rising health-care costs and workers' compensation insurance rates, and a competent Alaska work force.
"Those are the kind of issues that are near and dear to business. So that's what we're trying to do is hear what they have to say about issues that are important to business," said Wayne Stevens, Alaska State Chamber of Commerce president.
Because the state is enjoying a $1.2 billion surplus from oil revenues, the candidates were asked if they would use some of it for a fiscal plan.
"I definitely think we need to take part of that surplus and get it off the table now before the legislators go crazy with some of their grander spending sprees," said Republican candidate Sarah Palin, former mayor of Wasilla. Her fiscal plan would involve saving money from the surplus.
Independent candidate Andrew Halcro, a former state representative from Anchorage, said a long-range fiscal plan should tap Alaska Permanent Fund earnings, along with a contribution from Alaskans and greater contributions from industry.
Halcro also favored using permanent fund earnings to renew a revenue-sharing program with municipalities. He said spending more on fixing problems in the communities will make the state better off over time.
"Our inability to attack some of these fundamental problems drives up the costs of my business, your business and the state government," he said.
Democratic candidate and state Rep. Eric Croft of Anchorage disagreed with Halcro.
"I don't think it makes any sense to ask for more money from the individual pockets of Alaskans or any individual Alaskan businesses when we're operating as a trustee for resources and not getting our fair share of money," he said.
Croft and House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, D-Anchorage, said they favor getting a "fair share" of oil revenues from producers. The Democratic candidates this year have introduced proposals to increase taxes on oil and reserves of natural gas.
"We should be able to reach the point one day where we are running the state government off the earnings from our royalty," Berkowitz said. "We're probably going to wind up doing that in a piecemeal kind of way."
Each candidate said they favored shortening the 121-day legislative session by one month. All said they support keeping the capital in Juneau, though Palin said she would like to see the Legislature meet in another location.
The candidates said that if elected they would attempt to reverse or modify the state's new retirement system, which will go into effect for new employees hired after July 1. The new system uses 401(k)-style defined-contribution accounts giving employees a lump sum upon retiring.
Halcro said he would boost Alaska's tourism and seafood industries by using more money from the general fund for marketing.
Republican candidate John Binkley, a former state senator from Fairbanks, was unable to attend the forum. Murkowski and former Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles have not announced their intentions regarding the race.
Andrew Petty can be reached at email@example.com.
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