ANCHORAGE - Candidates in the race for governor sparred over issues from plowing snow to the state seal in debates Tuesday in Kenai and Anchorage.
At a noon forum at the Riverside House in Kenai, Fran Ulmer, the Democratic nominee, took a jab at the Republican-controlled Legislature that cut funding for highway transportation to help bridge the state's fiscal gap. The cuts forced the Knowles administration to close the Ninilchik road maintenance station.
Frank Murkowski, the Republican nominee, and Ulmer described the Nov. 5 election as crucial to determining the state's economic trajectory. But it's those types of cuts that hobble services and hurt communities, Ulmer said.
"Services do matter to the economy," she told the gathering organized by the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce. Ulmer favors new taxes if state reserves used to fill budget gaps fall below specific levels.
"If we can't pay for services somehow, our state will not be able to progress," she said.
Murkowski skipped the road maintenance issue and dove straight into his fiscal plan: no taxes and more resource development, particularly oil and gas.
"There is no other answer," he said. "We are rich in resources. We have got to develop them."
Two other gubernatorial hopefuls, Green Party candidate Diane Benson and Republican Moderate Raymond VinZant Sr., addressed the packed dining hall.
Ulmer, lieutenant governor for nearly eight years, pledged better government services to create a stable business climate. She described it as an investment. Murkowski saw the issue in opposite terms: Leaner government and slashed red tape will encourage growth, and that in turn will fund the state's services, he said.
Murkowski, a U.S. senator, said the state's fiscal problem, which led to the cutbacks in road maintenance, is a legitimate concern, but not as bad as people say.
The state operating budget has been running several hundred million dollars in the red, a trend officials say will continue. The reserve account used to balance the budget is projected to run dry by 2004.
A combination of smarter spending and a responsive, can-do spirit among regulators can turn it around, Murkowski said. He cast the difference between himself and Ulmer as a choice between taxes or new development.
VinZant said his primary mission if elected would be to slash government spending to close the fiscal gap and protect the permanent fund dividend program.
Benson said big business is making a killing off Alaska's resources while residents see little in return. She said she's against drilling for oil in ANWR and said her solution to the fiscal gap is a windfall tax when the price of oil exceeds $18 a barrel.
"We deserve to be more than just a colony for British Petroleum," she said.
At the studio of Anchorage television station KIMO six hours later, the group gathered again for another hour-long debate, this time with Libertarian Party candidate Billy Toien participating.
Toien blasted government for the proliferation of "more laws, rules and regulations. People are ready for a change," he said.
If elected, Toien said, he would push to have control of core government functions, such as education and public safety, given to local communities.
At the KIMO studio, Murkowski asked Ulmer about a vote she made against prosecuting minors as adults when she was a legislator in 1994. Ulmer said she could not remember the specifics, but said she has doubts about putting minors in prison.
"However we incarcerate someone we should think about how to make them a better person because they will be back out among us. Unless they have some treatment they'll be more dangerous," she said.
Ulmer asked Murkowski if he had promised supporters posts in his administration. In particular, she had heard Murkowski would appoint state Sen. Robin Taylor, a Wrangell Republican, his attorney general and wondered if it was true.
"I've not made a commitment to anyone for my administration," Murkowski said. "I've not made a commitment to anyone for my Senate seat."
During the debate, Toien presented Ulmer with two slightly different state seals. Toien suggested the current seal was not official and all laws passed underneath it are void.
"Which one is official?" he asked.
Questioned about the exchange afterward, Ulmer said: "Twilight zone."