ANCHORAGE - Gubernatorial candidates Republican Frank Murkowski and Democrat Fran Ulmer sparred over the state budget, subsistence and oil development in a debate via phone link Wednesday.
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Lt. Gov. Ulmer sat on the podium at the Hotel Captain Cook, where Commonwealth North held the debate. The Republican U.S. senator joined the debate by teleconference from Washington. A place for Murkowski, who returned to Washington, D.C. on Tuesday to meet with congressional Republicans about an energy bill, was occupied by a large color photograph propped up before a microphone and speaker.
The debate produced some of the sharpest exchanges of the campaign, dominated by the projected $500 million gap between state spending and dwindling oil revenues.
Murkowski repeated his opposition to taxes, outlined his plan to control state spending, and pumped up his plans for more oil development to bridge the state's fiscal gap. He faulted Ulmer and her boss, Gov. Tony Knowles, saying, "There has been no concentration on resource development."
Ulmer shot back: "Senator, I'd just like to bring you up to date a little bit."
Working with the oil industry has been a theme of the Knowles administration, she said. Ulmer detailed oil development over the past eight years: a dozen lease sales; new exploration in the National Petroleum Reserve on the North Slope; 26 percent of oil now flowing through the pipeline comes from fields brought online under the current administration.
Oil flow has stabilized at about 1 million barrels a day. But oil will not be enough to pay for state government in the future, Ulmer said.
"We all want resource development. But saying that is like saying we want Christmas to come earlier," she said.
Ulmer pledged support for more oil development. But she said the state must take steps toward taxes. She favors a tax that kicks in when the state's budget reserve falls below $1 billion.
Murkowski pledged his opposition to income taxes.
"I don't want an income tax. I'm not going to rob hardworking Alaskans of their income. I'm not going to take it out of their pockets and put it in the deep pocket of state government," he said. "Now you talk about sales tax. No broad-based taxes. I think it's bad for the economy, bad for families and bad for the small communities that depend on it."
Murkowski said he would work for budget cuts. He promised audits of state agencies and new legislation to set performance goals for public services. He said he would use the line-item veto to control spending.
The money to fill the huge gap in coming years must come from natural resources, he said.
"If you don't have goals, you don't achieve things. You just can't drift around. More mineral development, more timber revenues from state forests, develop an inventory of our state forests, develop more income from financial resources," Murkowski said.
Murkowski also tied Ulmer and Knowles to a lack of progress in solving the state's subsistence dilemma. Murkowski suggested Ulmer and Knowles had encouraged the split between urban and rural residents on subsistence hunting and fishing to gain favor with rural voters.
Ulmer lashed back, calling it "an outrageous suggestion."
Murkowski later said he had tried to solve the subsistence issue with a package of amendments to federal law that did not pass.
"We can all share, Fran, in the degree of failure," Murkowski said.