- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 29, 2014

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) - The first forum featuring all gubernatorial candidates has been held, still months ahead of the November election.

Gov. Sean Parnell had declined to participate in any of the earlier debates while the Legislature was in session. They gaveled out Friday, five days after the 90-day session should have ended, and Parnell attended his first session Monday with independent candidate Bill Walker and Democrat Byron Mallot, the Anchorage Daily News reported (https://is.gd/xnxxzq).

The candidates were questioned by Anchorage Chamber of Commerce members, with Walker hammering at the state’s budget deficit, Mallott’s sharpest retort coming on education funding, and with Parnell defending the oil tax cuts passed last year in Senate Bill 21. Voters will decide in the August primary whether to repeal the cuts.

The candidates were asked if they favor repealing the oil-tax cut measure.

“Absolutely not,” Parnell said.

He said the cuts are needed to spur production by the oil companies on the North Slope. The new tax scheme, he said, is already making a difference in curbing a decade-long decline in oil production.

Walker, a Republican is who running as an independent, supports repealing the tax.

The prior tax system, former Gov. Sarah Palin’s Alaska’s Clear and Equitable Share, brought in more money at high oil prices. Walker said it may have needed adjustment, but without it, Alaska would be a different place and in debt today, Walker said.

“If it hadn’t been for ACES, we’d be Detroit today,” he said. “ACES built up a savings account that we are living off of today.”

Walker said instead of cuts, the solution to more production is incentives to bring in more oil companies working beyond the large oil fields of Prudhoe Bay and Kuparuk.

Mallott didn’t give a direct answer, the newspaper reported, but had earlier said he would vote to repeal.

Walker also mentioned state projections of continuing budget deficits. That’s in contrast to Parnell’s State of the State address in January in which he said the state has never been stronger.

“We’re going to be in the red for the next 10 years,” Walker said.

Each also was asked to predict what percentage he would put on the prospect of the administration’s natural gas project and pipeline being built.

Walker said zero, and this is just another of the various pipeline proposals presented over the decades. Mallott said 50 percent, but upped that to 100 percent if he were elected.

Parnell said he was 100 percent certain the project would get through the next stage of engineering and design.

Parnell had tagged this year as the “education session.” His reform package included increased funding, but the base student allocation - the formula that districts rely on - only got a small increase.

“It is not an education session of the Alaska Legislature when you pass the education funding bill on the 94th-or-5th day of the 90-day session,” Mallott said.

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