FAIRBANKS — The Republican candidates for governor squared off at Pike’s Waterfront Lodge in Fairbanks on Sunday, discussing resource development, education and health care issues in a 90-minute debate.

Former state Rep. Ralph Samuels and Bill Walker, the ex-mayor of Valdez, appeared at the forum, which was sponsored by District 8 Republicans. Gov. Sean Parnell, who had another commitment and didn’t attend the debate, addressed the questions in a taped video response.

The Alaska primary election is set for Aug. 24.

Parnell’s absence was noted several times during the event by Samuels and Walker, who mentioned to the crowd of about 100 people that they’d found time to make it to Fairbanks during the busy campaign season.

Samuels, a former House majority leader representing Anchorage, was a longtime airline executive for PenAir before taking a position with Holland America in 2008. He briefly lived in Fairbanks during his childhood, attending University Park Elementary School.

Calling himself “a private-sector guy,” Samuels touted the need to spur the economy through business investment, not

government programs. He warned repeatedly during the debate that the state is headed for some tough financial choices as oil output declines, and said the next governor needs to be willing to face those challenges.

“I see nobody who is looking at Alaska’s economy, not this year, not next year, but in 10 years,” he said.

Walker, who was first elected Valdez mayor at age 27, is a businessman and the attorney for the Alaska Gasline Port Authority, which is pursuing a natural gas pipeline from the North Slope to Valdez.

He repeatedly stressed the need for the “All-Alaska pipeline” project, saying the issue is crucial to the state’s continued prosperity.

Walker, who was born in Fairbanks and has lived in Delta Junction and Anchorage, said he got an especially close look at the transformative power of the pipeline while living in Valdez. He said an All-Alaska natural gas line could provide a similar long-term boost to Alaska’s economy.

“I saw the oil pipeline built,” Walker said. “It changed our state.”

The approach toward developing natural gas in Alaska drew the sharpest distinctions between the three candidates, with each touting significantly different philosophies.

Parnell has been a strong supporter of the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act as the approach for making a large-scale pipeline a reality. Gene Therriault, who spoke on behalf of Parnell at the debate, said TransCanada’s AGIA application to transport gas to the Lower 48 through Canada is the most realistic opportunity for development.

But Samuels said the flood of shale gas on the world market has dampened the prospects for a major pipeline and makes it important to focus instead on a smaller “bullet line” that would rapidly provide natural gas to Alaska communities. He said a small tariff on that gas could be used to offset energy costs throughout the state.

Walker gave a fiery response to those ideas, saying Parnell’s AGIA approach amounts to nothing more than a state subsidy for a Canadian company, and said the administration has virtually eliminated all other options. He said limiting development to a bullet line would hinder Alaska’s long-term growth potential.

“I’m for a line that matches our opportunity in this state,” he said.

Education issues

The candidates also drew distinctions on their approach toward improving the state’s education system.

Parnell touted his new statewide college scholarship program, which would give in-state tuition breaks for high school students with solid grades and more rigorous courses. The Legislature passed the scholarship program this year, although it didn’t approve the $400 endowment Parnell sought to fund it.

Parnell said the scholarship program will be a key to invigorating both the education system and Alaska’s economy.

“We’re going to change our workforce for years to come because they’ll be better educated and better prepared,” Parnell said.

Samuels blasted Parnell’s proposed scholarship program, saying it would undermine personal responsibility in favor of more government intervention. He called it a “freebie scholarship program” that the state can’t afford in the economic climate.

He also said the state needs to revisit the so-called Molly Hootch decision, an agreement in 1976 that resulted in high schools being built in many small villages. Bush students had attended boarding schools in larger communities.

He said the policy has been a failure, both financially and educationally, and needs to be revised.

“It was a grand plan and we thought it was noble, and it didn’t work,” Samuels said.

Walker stressed the need for more vocational training in high schools, saying it’s unrealistic to teach every student as if they’re bound for college.

Walker also flatly said he is against the standardized testing that is one of the underpinnings of the federal No Child Left Behind law. He said the state has suffered by allowing federal bureaucrats to dictate its approach to education.

“One size does not fit all in the state of Alaska,” he said.

Federal limits

All three candidates said the state needs to firmly push back against federal regulations that limit resource development in Alaska. Walker went the farthest, saying he’d immediately endorse using directional drilling to tap oil beneath federal lands, whether or not the state had consent to do so.

“At some point you have to stop backing up … I’m sick and tired of waiting for permission to do this,” Walker said.

They also agreed that Alaska should fight the newly passed federal health care law in court, a step Parnell already initiated this spring.

Samuels said the issue is as much about states’ rights as health care, and that it carries over to federal intrusions that have occurred under both Republican and Democratic presidents.

“We are as smart as they are in Washington D.C. — a little smarter, I’d say,” Samuels said.

The debate, which was sponsored by the Fairbanks Republican Women, also served as a get-to-know-you event for a pair of local GOP candidates seeking spots in the Legislature — Senate seat D candidate Pete Higgins and District 8 House candidate Dave Talerico.

Contact staff writer Jeff Richardson at 459-7518.