Walker, Gara say new revenues needed to pay for public services, projects
September 28, 2022
In a Sept. 21 candidate forum hosted in Fairbanks by the Alaska Chamber of Commerce, Democratic governor candidate Les Gara and independent candidate Bill Walker said that if elected they would seek new state revenue to pay for a variety of projects and reverse years of cuts to state services.
Both men are seeking to unseat incumbent Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy, who has advocated cuts to public services and opposes any new taxes unless approved by a statewide vote of the public.
Also competing in the Nov. 8 general election is Republican candidate Charlie Pierce. Neither Dunleavy nor Pierce appeared at the forum. Pierce did not respond to invitations from the Alaska or Fairbanks chambers, and Dunleavy was touring storm damage in Western Alaska.
Dunleavy finished first in the Aug. 16 statewide primary, followed by Gara and Walker. The incumbent’s absence left his challengers with an open forum.
“This is a state that 20,000 more people have left in the last three years under this governor than have moved here,” Gara said, explaining the need for a change in policy. More people have left Alaska than have moved to the state for nine years in row, 2013-2021.
“Part of that has been the decimation of the capital and construction budget that puts people to work,” Gara said.
Thanks to a surge in oil prices due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Alaska lawmakers this spring approved almost $1 billion in state spending on renovation and construction projects statewide. That’s a huge change from recent years, when the state spent as little as $107 million.
Gara and Walker each said the state needs a stable fiscal plan in order to reliably pay for services, including construction and maintenance. Counting on the Russian invasion isn’t a fiscal strategy, Gara said.
During the debate, a member of the audience asked what the candidates would do to address the closures of bathrooms at roadside highway pullouts. The question garnered quiet laughter from some attendees, but Gara and Walker addressed it earnestly.
“That started on my watch,” Walker said, speaking about his first term in office. During that term, which ran from 2014 through 2018, oil prices plummeted and Walker directed service cuts, including to the maintenance of roadside bathrooms.
That made many Alaskans unhappy.
“I found out how many people in Valdez had my cell phone number,” Walker said, drawing laughs.
“But that’s a terrible message to send to our visitors, and it is a terrible burden on the roadhouses,” he said.
“We need to stop being a 19th century state,” Gara said of the closures. “We need to bring sanitation across the state. We need to have the amenities that people love in the state, that make people want to live here. And that is not free.”
Another member of the audience asked the obvious follow-up question: How will they pay for their ideas?
Gara’s proposal is to change the state’s oil production tax laws to eliminate a system of credits paid to producers. Doing so, he said, could save up to $1.2 billion per year and free up revenue for a variety of programs.
“We should be equal partners with our oil industry. They’re good neighbors, but right now, we’re junior partners,” he said.
Though Dunleavy was not present, he has advocated cuts to services and opposes even small tax increases without a statewide vote. This year, when the Legislature voted to impose a tax on e-cigarettes, Dunleavy vetoed it.
Walker said he thinks a “hard look” at the oil tax credits is warranted, but he doesn’t want to promise something he can’t deliver. A proposal similar to Gara’s failed to receive a hearing in the Legislature this year, he noted, and legislative action would be needed to implement Gara’s proposal.
Walker said he prefers multiple smaller revenue changes rather than “pulling one lever all the way down.” He said he would support “broad-based revenue options,” a term that some legislators have used as a euphemism for a statewide income tax or sales tax.
“You know, there’s only so many ways you can earn revenue for our government,” Walker said. “One is resources, which we’ve been doing. And the other is to capture some sort of sales or income taxes, some sort of use tax, something seasonal.”
During his prior term as governor, “we talked about a seasonal sales tax. We looked at everything under the sun, and it’s just a matter of what is palatable to the Legislature that we can work collaboratively and get through,” he said.
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