ANCHORAGE - If elected governor, Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer said Wednesday, she would lead Alaska into a new age of prosperity by pushing for a natural gas pipeline, revamping the fishing industry, supporting the state university system and expanding airport businesses.
Ulmer also said she would work hard to solve Alaska's long-standing fiscal problems to break what she called an "ever-expanding stranglehold on progress." But the lieutenant governor declined to say how she would go about doing that, instead saving the specifics of her fiscal plan for a speech later in the summer.
"The choice facing Alaskans in this campaign is clear," Ulmer said in a speech before supporters at the Petroleum Club in Anchorage. "The people of this state want and deserve a candidate willing to look into the future and begin building a new economy - one that is market driven, competitive and sustainable."
Ulmer faces Democrats Bruce J. Lemke and Michael J. Beasley in the Aug. 27 primary. Sen. Frank Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, is considered the front-runner in the race for governor.
If elected, Ulmer said, she would work to streamline the state's permitting system to make sure the oil and gas industry continues to be a driving force in the Alaska economy.
"I want to assure you that I will continue to aggressively pursue two potentially big opportunities on the horizon, opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and getting Alaska's natural gas to market," Ulmer said, her speech interrupted briefly by clapping.
Ulmer said that like Gov. Tony Knowles she is opposed to a natural gas pipeline route through the Beaufort Sea. But she said that unlike the governor she would be open to another route besides the highway route.
"I say the best route is the one that's economically viable, benefits Alaskans, and gets our gas to market," Ulmer said, again interrupted by clapping.
In a prepared statement, Murkowski accused Ulmer of changing her position from the Knowles administration's opposition to a ballot initiative that would ensure an all-Alaska route for the pipeline.
"I was surprised - but pleased - to see the lieutenant governor announce (Wednesday) she has abandoned her opposition to the All-Alaska Initiative that's one of the more promising opportunities to realize the potential of our North Slope gas resources," Murkowski said in a statement.
Ulmer said in an interview today that the Wednesday release of her economic plan was the first public comment she has made on the issue and that she has not changed her position.
"I believe the best project is the one that works," Ulmer told the Juneau Empire. "If that's Frank's position, then we agree."
In Wednesday's speech, Ulmer promised to meet quarterly with leadership teams from all the state's industries to improve Alaska's business climate.
But she said it will be hard to attract new businesses to Alaska until the state's fiscal problems are solved. The Department of Revenue estimates Alaska is facing a $963.4 million revenue shortage this fiscal year.
"Alaska's budget deficit and its ever-expanding stranglehold on progress are having a chilling effect on investments for both large and small businesses," she said. "This is particularly relevant to the oil and gas industry because it has paid the lion's share since 1981, when we repealed the state income tax. ... We cannot allow this situation to continue."
Ulmer said she would work to remove needless barriers to small businesses. She would support tourism by increasing marketing and making sure there is access to land and wildlife-viewing opportunities. And she would be a strong supporter of the University of Alaska so it can prepare workers with the skills to build "Alaska's new prosperity."
Ulmer said she would support expanding business at airports in Anchorage and Fairbanks.
"We are the bridge linking America, Asia and Europe," she said. "This gives global companies a huge incentive to locate in Alaska."
Making Alaska's salmon industry competitive again is one of the biggest challenges the state faces, Ulmer said. While farmed salmon from Chile and Norway likely will continue to depress prices, she would support measures to improve harvesting and processing to produce a better product.
"Then we have to mount a marketing blitz that tells the world that Alaska wild salmon is second to none," Ulmer said.
Empire reporter Timothy Inklebarger contributed to this report.
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