Candidates talk ballot measure, funding capital projects at forum
With everyone in Alaska’s crowded gubernatorial race for more oil and less crime, the candidates are trying to highlight what separates them in the final two months before the Nov. 6 election.
The candidates took the stage together during a lunch forum held by the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce Sept. 10.
Democrat candidate and former U.S. Sen. and Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich set himself apart from independent Gov. Bill Walker, former Republican state Sen. Mike Dunleavy and Libertarian candidate Billy Toien by noting he is the only one in the crowded field supporting Ballot Measure 1, which would overhaul the state’s permitting requirements for development projects in salmon habitat.
Resource industry and development groups oppose the measure, contending it would add unnecessary time and cost burdens — if not outright stop some projects, particularly large mines — to a regulatory process that has worked well for decades.
Ballot Measure 1 sponsors, led by the nonprofit Stand for Salmon, insist the voter initiative would largely codify in law best practices already used by the Department of Fish and Game’s Habitat Division and insulate science-based permit evaluations from political influences.
They also note the initiative would add public notice and comment period requirements to what currently is one of the only public resource-use permits the state issues without such input.
Begich said the Alaska Supreme Court stripped the proposed law change of its most prescriptive language Aug. 8, when the court removed an outright prohibition on permitting substantial damage to salmon habitat, calling it mostly a “right to know” measure after the ruling.
“If there’s going to be a megaproject the public gets to be involved from a state perspective; they get to have comments,” Begich said.
Dunleavy said he “doesn’t know what’s going to become of Alaska” if policies such as Ballot Measure 1 are enacted because it will hamper the state’s ability to approve projects and create jobs.
Toien’s message was similar.
Walker noted that he is still opposed to the measure even after the Supreme Court removed the provision it deemed unconstitutional for usurping the Legislature’s authority to appropriate state resources..
He more generally characterized the voter initiative process as a “blunt instrument,” and said that the new requirements would add a new layer of unwanted permitting uncertainty.
“If there’s improvements that need to be made, let’s have that discussion in the proper forum and that forum is in the committee rooms in Juneau so everybody has an opportunity to weigh in and participate,” Walker said.
Begich responded to that by drawing attention to the fact that legislators did not act on House Bill 199 — very similar to the ballot measure — last session, but did pass House Bill 44 when it became clear another voter initiative aimed at tightening legislative pay and per diem allowances was gaining steam.
The Alaska Constitution allows a legislative action to nullify an initiative if the intent of the change is substantially similar to that of the voter proposal.
“The back-and-forth the governor talks about is a great idea, but where were these guys when the debate was supposed to be happening?” Begich questioned. “Why weren’t they talking about this? Instead, 45,000 people (who signed the Ballot Measure 1 petition) got a little upset about it. That’s how the initiative process works.”
A question as to how the candidates feel the state should deal with the aging Anchorage port — which despite decaying dock infrastructure is still the entry point for the vast majority of goods entering the state — also illuminated how they plan to tackle the state’s broader capital project and deferred maintenance issues.
It’s generally accepted among state politicians that the $100 million to $150 million the state has spent from the general fund on capital budgets in recent years is unsustainably low, particularly as the state’s deferred maintenance bill approaches $2 billion.
In this case, it was Dunleavy who departed the most from his main competitors, though they all stressed the obvious need for rebuilding the docks.
Port officials have said the reconstruction project will likely require more than $500 million in new money to complete. The Municipality of Anchorage is currently attempting to recoup some of the more than $300 million in federal and state funds used on the failed expansion project in a lawsuit against the U.S. Maritime Administration that was tasked with supervising the effort that was halted in 2010.
The former Wasilla legislator said the main question is whether the money should come directly out of the state’s General Fund for the city-owned port. He wants to see if private investors would be interested in putting money into the port.
“I believe that there are equity funds and there are pension funds that would like to invest in the Port of Anchorage,” he said, using the former name for the facility.
The Anchorage Assembly renamed it the Port of Alaska in 2017 to emphasize its importance to the state overall.
Port Director Steve Ribuffo said in a 2017 interview that municipal officials have discussed the prospect of attracting private capital to fund the work, but noted that option would likely raise usage fees to cover investment returns — fee hikes that would invariably be passed on to Alaska consumers.
On broader capital projects, Dunleavy said he would push for more thorough vetting of state-funded projects and wants to see municipalities share capital costs with the state, ideally on a 50-50 split whenever possible.
Walker and Begich said they prefer voter-approved general obligation, or GO, bond packages as a means of growing the capital budget with low-interest debt, a way to fund construction that is common for local and state governments nationwide.
Begich is floating a one-time, $2 billion-plus GO bond package that would be dispersed over six years. He said up to about $100 million in General Fund money the state already spends on direct capital appropriations could be used for annual debt service, meaning the plan would not require any new state money, stressing accountability in project success and a need to prevent legislators from slipping pet projects into the capital budget.
“Deferred maintenance just alone for the State of Alaska is enormous and we just continue to close our eyes and hope it will magically disappear; that’s not how you do it,” Begich said.
Walker noted the latest capital budget included $20 million for the Port of Alaska on the expectation the municipality, which settled several lawsuits against contractors who worked on the project for just less than $20 million in January 2017, would provide matching funds.
He also said now that the state is using Permanent Fund earnings to greatly reduce annual deficits, which has also stabilized the state’s credit rating, it is time to revisit the $500 million biannual GO bond plan he submitted early in his tenure as governor but did was mostly ignored by the Legislature.
The governor called the port the “tip of the iceberg” of capital needs across the state.
“We have $1.8 billion of deferred maintenance that needs to be done across the state. It’s disappointing to me that the Legislature went through $14 billion of savings before we got to the SB 26 (Permanent Fund earnings) vote, which is unfortunate because that would’ve fixed literally every capital project across the state three times over,” Walker said.
Toien, the Libertarian, stressed that all state departments and quasi-government agencies and funds need to be put through a “comprehensive financial audit” and all revenue streams need to flow into the General Fund to get the best, true assessment of the state’s fiscal situation before any money goes to the port or any other major project.
Toien said he believes bringing “off-budget” revenues into the General Fund would also close the remaining roughly $700 million budget deficit that has been projected for the current fiscal year.
“I’m the only one addressing the comprehensive finances of the state, not just the corner called the budget or the (Constitutional Budget Reserve) and it’s because it’s necessary,” he said of his plan for balancing the budget.
Toien, in the unusual position of being the alternative fourth candidate in a race with an independent incumbent, closed his remarks with a pragmatic assessment of his situation.
“If everyone threw their vote away and voted for me I would win,” he said to a collective chuckle from the crowd.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].