ANCHORAGE - Ethan Berkowitz has no shortage of answers for how Alaska's state government could do better.
During candidate forums, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate jams rapid-fire answers into his allotted one-minute response times, offering a plan to expand wind power to 80 communities to lower diesel use in the state, and a comprehensive approach to improving Alaska's abysmal high school graduation rate. His education proposal would include the chance for all Alaska children to attend preschool.
Berkowitz, 48, is making his third run for statewide office in this traditionally Republican state, this time as the Democratic nominee for governor, after a shot at lieutenant governor in 2006 and a run at U.S. Rep. Don Young's seat two years ago - plus 10 years in the state House of Representatives, all in the minority.
His chances this fall hang largely on whether he convinces voters that the status quo under former Gov. Sarah Palin and her replacement, Sean Parnell, is not acceptable.
"Sean's lack of leadership credentials poses a serious danger to the state," he told The Associated Press. "His mismanagement of the economy, in particular oil and gas policy, is incredibly dangerous."
In a state that usually votes its pocketbook, Berkowitz says Parnell is doing little to confront the very real threat that Alaska's cash cow, the trans-Alaska pipeline, could be turned off within a few years. Alaska receives upward of 90 percent of its general fund income from petroleum revenue. Berkowitz says Parnell is not doing enough.
"He tends to be very reactive at best, passive, and tends to be incremental at a time where we're facing a serious challenge with decreasing throughput through the trans-Alaska pipeline," Berkowitz says. He's waited and watched and had at most, as I said today several times, merely cosmetic changes, instead of taking the bold steps that are necessary to improve the investment climate in Alaska."
Parnell disagrees with Berkowitz on nearly every issue. During their legislative days, when Alaska faced a billion-dollar deficit, Berkowitz was offering budget amendments to spend more and he continues to look government to solve problems, he said.
"Ethan Berkowitz stands for more government," Parnell says. "I stand for more freedom."
Berkowitz, who was born in San Francisco, earned a bachelor's degree in government and economics from Harvard, a master's degree in polar studies from Cambridge University in England and a law degree from the University of California Hastings College of Law in San Francisco.
Berkowitz moved to Alaska in 1991 and clerked for the Alaska Court of Appeals. He worked as a state prosecutor for two years. He was elected five times to the state House from west Anchorage, serving as minority leader for eight years. He's married to Mara Kimmel, an attorney and an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alaska Anchorage. They have two elementary school-age children.
Berkowitz's list of issues begins with steps to construct a natural gas pipeline that could tap vast North Slope resources. The plan championed by Palin and embraced by Parnell, he says, has no chance of success. He calls the state incentive to TransCanada, which won a state license for a pipeline, a "bailout."
"All we've done is paid them $500 million to pursue a process," he said.
He would pull the plug on the process in favor of promoting an in-state line to Valdez. He unveiled a plan to let Alaska individuals and corporations build up a fund that could jump-start financing.
He sees flaws for the industry in Palin's 2007 tax revision plan, Alaska's Clear and Equitable Share. ACES replaced a broken system, he said, but went too far.
"It inadequately addressed the need to encourage investment," Berkowitz said. "We need to encourage investment. We've got geology there that isn't as prime as it once was and we need to do more to ensure that more oil flows through the pipeline. That means in my mind we have to be much more aggressive, and Sean Parnell, in my mind, is offering these sort of tepid, cosmetic changes."
He also wants to build infrastructure in anticipation of Arctic offshore drilling instead of suing the federal government to force it to happen.
For all of Parnell standing on his record as a fiscal conservative, Berkowitz says, Parnell has overseen some of the largest budgets in state history. Alaska needs to get away from tying annual budgets to what it earns in annual oil revenue. The genius of the Alaska Permanent fund, he said, was taking something nonrenewable and making it into something that is. Something similar could be done to create an account whose earnings could pay for state government.
"It's not fair for this generation of Alaskans to spend oil wealth that's been percolating in the ground for millions of years, and deprive the next generation of that ability," he said. "You also have a more stable flow of money. You let the money do more work for you, which helps us preserve our wealth, rather than just spending our money."
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