FAIRBANKS - The Republican candidates for governor drew sharp distinctions on education and developing natural gas at a debate in Fairbanks.
Bill Walker, the ex-mayor of Valdez, and former state Rep. Ralph Samuels appeared at Sunday's forum sponsored by the Fairbanks Republican Women - three months before the Aug. 24 primary election. Gov. Sean Parnell addressed the questions in a taped video response. His challengers noted his absence several times, telling the audience that they found the time to travel here.
Parnell touted his new statewide college scholarship program, which would give in-state tuition breaks for high school students. The Legislature passed the scholarship program this year, although it didn't approve the endowment Parnell sought to fund it.
Samuels, a former House majority leader representing Anchorage, strongly criticized the proposal, calling it a "freebie scholarship program" the state can't afford - one that would undermine personal responsibility.
Samuels also said the state must revisit the 1976 Molly Hootch agreement that prompted the building of high schools in many small villages. He called the policy an academic and financial failure.
"It was a grand plan and we thought it was noble, and it didn't work," Samuels said.
Walker, meanwhile, called for more vocational training in high schools, contending it's unrealistic to teach every student as if they're bound for college.
The candidates concurred on several issues, such as fighting the newly passed federal health care law in court and pushing back against federal regulations that limit resource development.
They differed on their approaches toward developing natural gas.
Parnell has been a strong supporter of the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act as the approach for making a large-scale pipeline a reality. Gene Therriault, who spoke on behalf of Parnell at the debate, said TransCanada's AGIA application to transport gas to the Lower 48 through Canada is the most realistic opportunity for development.
Samuels, however, said the flood of shale gas on the world market has cooled prospects for a major pipeline. He said Alaska should focus on a smaller "bullet line" that would rapidly provide natural gas to communities.
Walker blasted those ideas, saying Parnell's approach is essentially a state subsidy for a Canadian company and limiting development to a bullet line would hinder Alaska's long-term growth potential.
"I'm for a line that matches our opportunity in this state," said Walker, who supports the "All-Alaska pipeline" project, which would bring gas from the prodigious North Slope to Valdez and export markets.