Walker defends record, challengers offer alternatives in Fairbanks governor candidate forum

Governor candidates answer questions presented by the Alaska Travel Industry Association Tuesday during the ATIA’s annual convention at the Carlson Center in Fairbanks. From left: former state Sen. Mike Dunleavy, former U.S. Sen. Mark Begich and Gov. Bill Walker. (Jody Overstreet/Alaska Photo Treks)

Gov. Bill Walker and the two candidates who are running to unseat him pitched their ideas Tuesday on how to promote the state’s tourism industry. Walker and former Republican state Sen. Mike Dunleavy, along with former Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, talked about tourism and other issues during an Alaska Tourism Industry Association candidate forum at the Carlson Center in Fairbanks.

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The incumbent and his two challengers found much to agree on during a candidates’ forum hosted by the organization that advocates for the state’s tourism industry. All three say the state should boost funding for infrastructure like highways, airports and marine ferry and cruise ship facilities to facilitate tourism.

But they also clashed with Walker over his contention that he had to cut funding for the industry and make other tough decisions during the state’s economic downturn.

“Y’know, we have pent-up opportunities in Alaska, but we had to balance our budget,” Walker said. “It was not fun, it was a lot of work; some quit, some didn’t, and we got it done.”

As he has throughout the campaign, Walker defended his decisions to sharply cut the state budget over the past three years after oil prices plunged and Senate Republicans refused his proposals to adopt other sources of revenues.

“You need someone who’s going to bring stability,” Walker said. “So you can look out in the years ahead and not wonder if the price of oil going to cause your revenue to go away. We brought that stability.”

Walker, who politically identifies as an independent, says he wants to help the industry promote year-round tourism, especially for visitors from Asia. Begich says Alaska needs bold leadership to boost tourism. He cited his push to get the Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center built 10 years ago, when he was mayor of Anchorage.

“Y’know when I was mayor of Anchorage, we had the same problems – budget crash, crime up – everything you can imagine,” Begich said. “We not only worked on that, but we also did something else: even through the year before it had failed at the ballot box, we said we’re going to take on building the convention center for our city.”

Dunleavy, a conservative Republican, is the front-runner in the three-way contest. He says he’d take a small-government approach for both the tourism industry and the state’s economy.

“I believe that we can get this budget under control,” Dunleavy said. “And I believe, through the right policies and working directly with you folks, we can actually grow your industry, as well as others, create more jobs.”

The three candidates all pledged to work with federal authorities to increase access to national parks. Dunleavy says he’d also task the state Fish and Game Department to increase stocking fish in lakes and to develop policies that would ensure there’s enough wildlife for tourists to see.

“What I want to make sure you know is that you’re going to have a governor who’s not going to do things to you, but help you actually grow your business as we move forward,” Dunleavy said.

All three candidates also said they’d restore funding for the travel industry association’s marketing efforts that the Legislature had re-appropriated over the past few years. The funding, which comes from a tax on rental vehicles, fell from $16 million in FY2013 to $1.5 million last fiscal year, after Walker vetoed part of the appropriation. He’s recently pledged to boost funding to $12 million.

Both challengers say they’d protect the tourism-marketing funding from future re-appropriations. Begich says the funding is essential, the recession notwithstanding, to enable the industry to grow.

“Even in bad times, you have to invest,” Begich said.

Begich says he also favors a two-year budget cycle, to give businesses in tourism and other industries more time to plan ahead.