Knowles makes big promises, plans

Candidate set himself apart with strategies

Posted: Tuesday, October 24, 2006

JUNEAU - Pick an issue and odds are that Tony Knowles has a plan or made a promise.

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No detail is too small. Agriculture? Knowles' five-point plan starts with keeping Palmer's Mount McKinley Meat and Sausage plant open.

Environment? Knowles wants a program to offer grants and incentives for renewable energy resources.

National Guard? How about a $100 per month "patriot bonus" for troops in combat zones?

There are promises to reverse the pension changes made by the Alaska Legislature last year, install a municipal revenue aid program pegged on oil prices, create an education trust fund and expand health coverage. Then there is the crown jewel: Signing a natural gas pipeline fiscal contract within the next year.

A major reason the Democratic gubernatorial candidate's approach this election has been so policy heavy is to expose the difference between his campaign and Republican Sarah Palin's. Palin, whose lead Knowles is trying to chip away, lacks so many specifics that it raises questions about what she will do if she is elected, he says.

That plays into Knowles' theme that as a former two-term governor, he has the experience to make the pivotal decisions the next governor will face.

"The issues are so important, the stakes are so high, and people are looking for a plan," Knowles said. "If you listen to Sarah Palin on the stump, there is never any details or plan. It's all platitudes."

If Knowles' strategy gets him elected in the Nov. 7 election, will he be able to keep all those promises?

Of course, the candidate says. It's a matter of priorities.

"Looking at the big ideas out there. It really boils down to three important ones, so it's focused," Knowles said. "It has to do with developing our natural resources on our terms. That means a gas line on Alaska's terms."

Natural resource development - with a North Slope natural gas pipeline at the center - will create the money needed for the other two ideas Knowles deems important: Improving the education system and having affordable health insurance for all state residents.

As for all the other plans and programs, which are detailed on Knowles' Web site, they are realistic if the state continues to enjoy the budget surpluses of the past couple of years and if fiscal discipline is practiced, he said.

"If you put this as 'pie in the sky,' you're escaping the practicality and detail of the work that went into devising it. And I say this as a governor who served for eight years and knows budgeting, has been through the budget process, and there's nothing in there that is a reach beyond what we can do," Knowles said.

In response to the criticism that her platform is skimpy, Palin's campaign has started coming out with a more detailed agenda. Her education and transportation plans were released Sunday.

"We hear that from those guys, but Sarah is deliberate. She really wanted to take her time and think about these things," said Palin spokesman Curtis Smith. "Sarah's said all along that she's not an expert on all things, and anybody who claims to be, maybe you should be wary of."

Any candidate making big promises will have to find a way to pay for them. Eighty-nine percent of the state money used to run government comes from oil, and prices have fallen from $70 a barrel to just over $52.31 on Monday. The longer the price of oil stays low, the thinner the state's surplus becomes.

Plus, the cost of government continues to increase, particularly in health care and education. When budget hawks squawked over the fat operating budget Gov. Frank Murkowski presented earlier this year, his exasperated budget director, Cheryl Frasca, said she would like to see which services they would like to cut.

Cutting the capital budget from its record size this year is one way to free up cash for his programs, Knowles said. As for the operating budget, Knowles said he would have to complete a department-by-department review before deciding what he could trim.

One thing Knowles would have going for him: Changes made this year to the state's oil production tax is sure to bring a wave of new cash, with the tax rate now pegged to the price of oil.

However, many question whether the profits-based tax will be a long-term boom. Oil production is declining, which means less oil to tax, some say. Others, including many Democratic legislators, believe once the new law's tax credits start kicking in, the cash flow will slow.

Going against Knowles would be a Republican-led Legislature with which he has butted heads in the past.

One of the House Finance Committee's budget hawks, Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, said Knowles has a plan for everything except how to pay for it all. Hawker said he is against spending on new or expanded programs that may not be sustainable in the future.

"We need to take care of our existing programs before we embark on new spending schemes," Hawker said.

That's not to say Knowles' ideas don't have merit, Hawker said. He likes Knowles' plans for health insurance pools and to expand the training of health care professionals. But Hawker said he hasn't heard one candidate say how they will address Medicaid, which is forecast to cost the state $2 billion a year by 2025.

Knowles said partisanship won't stymie him or his agenda. Being able to unify people across party lines is one of the essential skills of a governor, he said.

Independent gubernatorial candidate Andrew Halcro said his own observations are different. Halcro served as a Republican legislator during Knowles' second term, which ended in 2002. He said Knowles struggled with Republican and even legislators from his own party on many issues.

"I certainly worked with Tony for four years and I have a different opinion of his ability to work across party lines," Halcro said. "Tony didn't even work with Democrats. The guy was never around."

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