Democrats disagree about future of oil, fish and ships

Posted: Sunday, August 20, 2006

The two Democrats vying to be the next governor of Alaska disagreed Friday night in Juneau over cruise lines, political partisanship, oil industry incentives and how to deal with a troubled Bering Sea crab fishery.

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Facing each other in their final gubernatorial debate, live at the KTOO-TV studio, former Gov. Tony Knowles and Rep. Eric Croft, D-Anchorage, quizzed each other about crab fishery privatization and oil tax incentives.

Seizing upon Croft's claim that Alaska has been cutting too many financial breaks to the oil companies, Knowles asked Croft if he would support incentives to firms that started up new oil fields.

Croft said that Knowles - when governor - proposed some incentives that made sense. But he worried that those incentives could "balloon."

Croft tried to pin down Knowles' views of the new federal program allocating Bering Sea and Aleutian Island crab among fishermen, processors and communities. The program was developed during the Knowles administration and went into effect last year. It promptly ran into some troubles, ranging from economic woes in fishing villages to the wastage of millions of pounds of legal-sized crab thrown back into the ocean.

"Don't you think we should have a moratorium before proceeding further?" Croft asked.

Knowles said he wouldn't support an immediate moratorium of the program. A former member of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, Knowles said the council would first need to review the evidence from the crab fishery as a first step.

He pointed out that the state did not agree with the federal crab allocation formula during his administration.

The candidates also discussed the identity crisis in the national Democratic Party. Knowles said politicians, in general, need to be less partisan, and work across party lines. Croft said Democrats needed to be more aggressive and progressive.

"The challenge is uniting Alaskans," Knowles said.

Croft said that the Democratic Party is troubled because its members "haven't been real, progressive Democrats ... There is a sense that you (can) only be Republican-lite, or a minority," Croft said.

The candidates agreed on Proposition 1, but disagreed about Proposition 2 on this Tuesday's primary election ballot. Croft is sponsoring Proposition 1, which would limit political campaign donations and set stricter limits on lobbying.

"We have a political system that has become complacent," Croft said.

Knowles said he will vote for Proposition 1. He said Alaska had the best campaign finance law in the nation eight years ago, but since then, the limit on political donations has been doubled and lobbying laws have been weakened.

"We need to return (to the old law)," Knowles said.

Knowles does not support Proposition 2, to enact taxes and new environmental and consumer regulations for the cruise lines operating in Alaska.

"I support a fair share of revenue, and strong, environmental regulations, but I do not support this initiative," Knowles said. He said it "adds people (to agencies)" instead of stronger laws, and will hurt small businesses.

Croft disagreed. He said that the new taxes will not scare away cruise ship passengers, and will correct an outrageous business practice by cruise lines, which pressure Alaska small businesses to give them huge percentages of their income in order to get on the cruise line's preferred business list, he said.

The candidates also discussed BP's recent shutdown of a large portion of its oil pipeline network on the North Slope.

Both agreed that the state dropped the ball on regulating the industry's corrosion control measures.

"We have to trust, but also verify," Knowles said, pointing out that his administration had requested half a million dollars for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation to monitor for corrosion-related problems.

Knowles said the funding was pulled, and the BP shutdown should be a wake-up call for the Legislature. "We did not get the proper funding from the legislature to do that," he said.

Croft said the last few governors - including Knowles - have been too lax with their oversight of the oil companies. Within the state, the greatest responsibility lies with the governor, he said.

He said state leaders aren't more aggressively regulating the oil industry today due to their heavy reliance on industry donations for their political campaigns - a problem he hopes to rectify with Proposition 1.

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