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Sparks fly in last debate in Alaska governor’s race

November 2, 2018
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FILE - This Thursday, Oct. 25, 2018 file photo shows Alaska gubernatorial candidates Mike Dunleavy, left, a Republican, and Democrat Mark Begich, right, prior to a debate in Anchorage, Alaska. The two major candidates for governor in Alaska are facing off one more time before next week's general election. Begich and Dunleavy are expected to participate in a broadcast debate sponsored by Anchorage TV station KTVA Thursday evening, Nov. 1, 2018. Both are vying to succeed Gov. Bill Walker. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen, File)
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FILE - This Thursday, Oct. 25, 2018 file photo shows Alaska gubernatorial candidates Mike Dunleavy, left, a Republican, and Democrat Mark Begich, right, prior to a debate in Anchorage, Alaska. The two major candidates for governor in Alaska are facing off one more time before next week's general election. Begich and Dunleavy are expected to participate in a broadcast debate sponsored by Anchorage TV station KTVA Thursday evening, Nov. 1, 2018. Both are vying to succeed Gov. Bill Walker. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen, File)

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Sparks flew in the final debate of the Alaska governor’s race, with the two major candidates jockeying to draw distinctions between themselves as the election nears.

Democrat Mark Begich dismissed as a gimmick a major piece of Republican Mike Dunleavy’s platform: a plan to pay residents a full dividend check from the state’s oil-wealth fund, the Alaska Permanent Fund.

Dunleavy, meanwhile, sought to cast Begich as disengaged from the budget debates that have roiled the state in recent years.

The at-times testy TV debate gave Begich and Dunleavy a high-profile opportunity to lay out their case to voters in the run-up to Tuesday’s election. The two are seeking to succeed independent Gov. Bill Walker, who ended his campaign last month.

Though Walker remains on the ballot, he has dismissed any thought of winning. He has said he thought Begich would be better for Alaska than Dunleavy.

Begich called Dunleavy’s plans to pay residents a full dividend check a ploy for votes that could threaten the long-term future of the program.

“What I hear here is a gimmick and a slogan and basically, ‘Let me take your vote today and give you a big prize.’ But down the road, who’s going to pay this? All of us,” Begich said.

Qualified residents receive an annual check from the Alaska Permanent Fund. But the check has been capped since 2016 amid a budget deficit.

Dunleavy said the state can afford to pay a full dividend. He said he also supports paying Alaskans the money they missed out on when checks were capped.

He acknowledged that would cost billions of dollars but said there is money in the fund’s earnings reserve account. As of Sept. 30, the amount in the earnings reserve was $17 billion, according to the Alaska Permanent Fund Corp.

The future of the checks is a major issue in the race, along with crime and the economy.

When lawmakers left Juneau earlier this year, they anticipated a shortfall of about $690 million that would be covered using savings. That assumed an average oil price of $63 a barrel. So far this fiscal year, prices have been above that, reaching above $80 a barrel at some points.

But the budget is propped up with permanent fund earnings, which legislators began dipping into this year to help cover government costs. Dividends also are paid with fund earnings, setting up a political fight over the program.

Dunleavy argues Alaskans should get a say on proposed changes to the program via an advisory vote.

Begich has supported moving much of the money in earnings into the fund’s constitutionally protected principal. He supports limited withdrawals based on a percentage of the fund’s market value with money divvied between dividends and education.

In 2017, Dunleavy left the Republican-led caucus, costing him committee assignments and staff. He said he wanted more cut from the budget and opposed limiting the size of the dividend check.

During Thursday’s debate, Dunleavy said he voted against the budget. He did on an initial vote. But when the vote was reconsidered in the Senate, he voted yes. Alaska Public Media reported at the time that Dunleavy said the vote was made in error since he thought it was a procedural vote.

Dunleavy left the state Senate in January after five years to focus on the campaign. He said while he was fighting for the dividend in Juneau, Begich was “in Washington, D.C. making millions of dollars consulting with his clients” and “nowhere to be found.”

A financial disclosure Begich filed with the state shows he made between $200,000 and $500,000 last year as CEO and president of Northern Compass Group and between $100,000 and $200,000 with the group for “general strategic advice.”

Begich, who worked as a consultant after losing his re-election bid to the U.S. Senate in 2014, said it was “outrageous” for Dunleavy to suggest he wasn’t paying attention to Alaska issues.

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