Dunleavy defends record in governor debate with Gara, Walker
Gov. Mike Dunleavy, center, delivers his State of the State speech to a Joint Session of the Alaska Legislature as Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, left, and Speaker of the House Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, watch from the front of the House chambers at the Alaska State Capitol in Juneau, Alaska, Monday, Jan. 27, 2020. (AP Photo/Michael Penn)

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Alaska Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy defended his record against sharp criticism from two major rivals during a televised debate Wednesday, arguing the state is “better off today than it was four years ago” under the administration of one of those challengers.

Independent former Gov. Bill Walker, who held the office from 2014 to 2018, and Democrat Les Gara disputed Dunleavy’s characterization. Gara, a former state lawmaker, in response to questions frequently contrasted his positions to Dunleavy’s. Walker said Dunleavy had “taken a wrecking ball to our state,” referencing cuts to areas like the state ferry system. Walker also criticized Dunleavy for agreeing to participate in only a handful of debates ahead of the Nov. 8 election.

Dunleavy, who faced a recall attempt earlier in his term fueled by public anger over vetoes and budget cuts he had proposed, said he’s been busy in his role as governor. “How many debates do you need to be able to get your point across?” he said.

The fourth candidate, Republican Charlie Pierce, a former Kenai Peninsula Borough mayor, also participated.

Issues discussed during the debate, which was broadcast on TV and radio and streamed, included the annual dividend paid to residents from the state’s oil-wealth fund, abortion and Alaska’s new ranked choice voting system.

Dunleavy said the dividend was “broken” under Walker and that the legislature has been in “turmoil” ever since. Dunleavy said he wants to work with lawmakers on a formula that “works for the people of Alaska” and noted he had put forth proposed constitutional amendments during his term around issues like the dividend and a spending limit.

He has touted as significant the $3,284 checks that residents received this year, a payout that included a $2,622 dividend from the oil-wealth Alaska Permanent Fund and a $662 energy relief payment authorized by lawmakers as part of this year’s budget. The budget passed at a time when oil prices were above $110 a barrel; more recently they’ve been around the $90 range.

Dividends for years were paid according to a formula but in 2016, amid deficits, Walker cut the amount available for checks, an action later upheld by the state Supreme Court. The amount has been set by lawmakers since.

In 2018, lawmakers also began using fund earnings, long used for dividends, to help pay for government and sought to limit withdrawal amounts. That has led to at-times drawn-out debates over how much money should go toward each purpose.

Walker said he would work with lawmakers to come up with a sustainable formula. He said given the billions of dollars in savings that lawmakers have gone through in recent years, he was concerned that high dividends would put the state “in the express lane for high taxes.” He said he didn’t want that.

Gara said he favors revisions to Alaska’s oil tax structure, which he said would provide money for a “strong” dividend.

“We can’t keep turning Alaskans against each other,” he said. Gara on his website says that without “fair” oil revenue, Alaskans have been pitted against each other in seeking money for dividends, schools, renewable energy or other services or programs.

Pierce called the dividend an “Alaskan right” and said he would work with lawmakers to build consensus on that issue. He said if it takes a constitutional convention to resolve the matter, he supports that.

The Alaska Supreme Court has interpreted the right to privacy in the state constitution as encompassing abortion rights. The candidates were asked if that should change.

Gara said the stakes in the race are high “if you believe in the right to choose.” He emphasized his support of abortion rights and suggested those rights could be eroded under Dunleavy.

Walker said he would defend the current interpretation and veto any legislation “that comes between a woman and her doctor.”

Dunleavy didn’t answer the question directly, noting instead the court’s interpretation of the state constitution. “Unless that’s changed by the people of Alaska, there can’t be different outcomes than we have right now,” he said, accusing other candidates of “fear-mongering.”

Dunleavy in June, after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe vs. Wade, said he intended to propose a constitutional amendment during the next legislative session “to answer the question whether abortion shall, or not be a constitutionally protected right.”

Pierce noted his opposition to abortion but also acknowledged the court interpretation.

This year’s elections are being held under a new system, approved by voters in 2020, that replaced party primaries with open primaries and instituted ranked choice voting for general elections.

Both Gara and Walker said they supported the ranked choice voting system. Dunleavy noted the overhaul was approved by voters. “We’ll do everything we can to make it work. And we’ll do an evaluation after that and we’ll see how this new voting process works,” Dunleavy said.

Pierce said he doesn’t support ranked voting and questioned if it “was really passed legitimately.” An audit of the measure, conducted by the Division of Elections after the 2020 election, confirmed its passage.