Three top contenders for the Republican governor's nomination competed for support among members of the Juneau Chamber of Commerce Thursday, agreeing on several core Republican issues, but disagreeing strongly on natural gas pipeline plans.
Incumbent Sean Parnell and challengers Ralph Samuels, a former House Majority Leader, and Bill Walker, a former Valdez mayor, also all offered varying commitments of support for Juneau as a capital.
Pipeline problem draws in differing views
Meeting in Juneau the day before the bids are due from natural gas shippers on the state-supported Alaska Pipeline Project, the candidates showed strong but widely varying views on possible pipelines.
Parnell has strongly supported the state's ongoing effort, while Walker said it should abandon that and immediately begin work on his preferred plan of exporting natural gas through Valdez.
"I'd stop the studying, I'd start building," Walker said.
"No more studies, if you elect me we'll be under construction in 36 months," he said.
Samuels said Walker's plans for exporting gas through Valdez won't work. World prices for Liquefied Natural Gas have dropped substantially in recent years.
"I wholeheartedly disagree with Mr. Walker's plan to go to Valdez, you're not going to get the money for the gas," he said.
Walker also challenged Parnell on secrecy of how the state-sponsored pipeline TransCanada Corp. is developing. He said the state should try to force TransCanada to release bid results early, even if it jeopardized the open season.
"We Alaskans have put $126 million into that process, why do we have to wait and cannot know the results of the open season now,? Walker asked Parnell during a period the chamber allotted for the candidates to ask each other questions.
Parnell said that information is currently held by a private sector company, TransCanada, not by the state.
"The state cannot turn over what it doesn't have," he said. The process of secret bids is standard all over the country for pipeline development, he said.
Parnell said the state was as close to getting a pipeline as it has ever been, with two pipeline companies in the midst of open seasons seeking shipping commitments.
Samuels doubted that the current efforts would build a pipeline anyway.
"I believe the market has disappeared in the Lower 48 for the time being, I believe our window has probably shut," he said.
Samuels was the Legislature's most prominent opponent of the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act and the only legislator to vote against it. He suggested that there would be additional votes against it if the vote was taken now.
Candidates non-committal on Permanent Fund's future
Each of the candidates was asked what it would take before they'd be willing to use the Alaska Permanent Fund to help run state government.
None answered, but each told stories of how fiscally conservative they were.
Parnell said that he'd been in the Legislature when oil was at $9 a barrel, but he'd cut programs rather than looking for additional revenue.
"You set your spending priorities," he said. "I didn't reach for the revenue handle, I reduced spending."
Before the state's budget problem could be solved, Samuels said the public must be convinced there is a problem.
Later, he suggested where cuts should be made.
"We have to get a grip in education and Medicaid," he said. "We need very fundamental changes in how government delivers services," he said.
Walker didn't rule it out, but said using the permanent fund was the "last tool in the tool box."
Juneau's doing the job as the state capital, but should state jobs stay in Juneau?
In a surprise contrast to recent political events, candidates were not asked and did not volunteer their views on the Juneau Road. After the debate, Chamber President Bill Martins said that was likely because all were known supporters.
Each said they supported the capital being in Juneau, with Walker saying commissioners should live here as well.
Parnell said that while he just hired a new commissioner from Juneau, he doesn't require them to live here.
"Commissioners should live where they can get the job done," he said.
He defended Juneau's status as the capital, he said, and not just in Juneau. As a legislative candidate in Anchorage, he said he was one of only two out of 65 candidates willing to publicly support Juneau.
Walker said he supported Juneau in Anchorage, as well as in Juneau.
"I don't pander," he said. "I don't have that good of a memory."
Samuels, too, offered strong support.
"I firmly believe the capital should stay in Juneau and most of the work of government should be done in Juneau," he said.
Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or firstname.lastname@example.org.