Governor gives broad overview in State of the State
Gov. Bill Walker’s first speech to the Legislature Wednesday was low key, a blend of his personal history and Alaska’s story.
Democrats said it was a good overview. Republicans said it was short on details. But most lawmakers, when asked what grade they would give the speech, rated it a “B.” They said they liked his positive, upbeat message.
Walker did acknowledge the heavy lifting that will be needed to deal with the state’s looming budget shortfall, but gave no specifics on how he will address it. Lawmakers are hoping to hear more on this subject on Thursday night in his State of the Budget address.
The governor talked at length about the impact of the earthquake on his family, who lost everything. He said the lesson learned from those days will help him address the state’s unprecedented $3.5 billion budget gap.
“This is what I learned from my parents: Don’t panic when times are tough. Make a plan. Stick to it. Stay focused. Stay positive and get to work,” Walker said.
Also last night, the governor tried to reassure lawmakers he would pursue a large-volume natural gas project to bring North Slope gas to market, something he said he’s been working on as long as he’s been married.
“Under my administration we will finally begin building the Alaska gas line to tidewater,” Walker said.
He repeated this line out of his speech again, saying he’s waited 37 years to say it. The remark drew a round of applause.
The governor also renewed his pledge to expand Medicaid and gave a nod to his Health and Social Services Commissioner Valerie Davidson for beginning the process.
Earlier in the speech, when listing the strengths and accomplishments of lawmakers, he noted some had overcome tremendous challenges.
“The men and women in this room are no strangers to adversity. Some of you have beaten cancer,” Walker said.
He also brought the subject of catastrophic illness in his remarks on Medicaid.
“There are mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, entire families, who will go to bed tonight in fear,” Walker said. “Fear, that despite their best efforts, they are just one injury or diagnosis from losing everything. That’s wrong. That’s unacceptable. And we’re going to put an end to that in my administration.”
The governor also announced he would announce the appointment of a special investigator in the Alaska National Guard scandal. That announcement came Thursday morning when he said retired judge Patricia Collins had been selected to fill that role.
“As commander and chief of the Alaska National Guard, let me assure you the perpetrators will be brought to justice, face expulsion, incarceration or both,” he said.
The governor also pledged to battle what he called an epidemic of sexual assault and domestic violence.
The governor spoke of diversifying the economy and put the spotlight on a Juneau brewing company and Mat-Su carrots.
He also promised to make low-cost energy for all Alaskans and Arctic policy priorities in his administration.
“I think he knocked it out of the park,” said Rep. Chris Tuck, an Anchorage Democrat who serves as House minority leader.
Tuck called the speech down to earth and genuine. He said he could tell the governor was nervous because he could see the sweat on his forehead. And while this surprised him a little, he understood, because it made him realize how important the speech was to the governor.
Republican majority leaders said while they liked a lot of what they heard, the speech left them unsatisfied. They said he was telling them things they already knew — and that pointed to his lack of experience in state government.
“It was a good speech on ‘let’s work together,’ but not any different than campaign rhetoric in my view,” said Sen. John Coghill, the Senate majority leader.
“He said when he started off, we need to make a plan. I kept waiting for it,” said Rep. Craig Johnson, the House rules chairman.
Others said his comments on education were confusing — that on the one hand he said he would try to protect education funding but that it couldn’t be funded at the level it was when oil was over a $100 a barrel.
The Republican majority also questioned the governor’s commitment to the Alaska Liquefied Natural Gas Project, and were troubled when he talked about bringing gas to “tidewater” instead of Nikiski, the site the state’s partners in the project have already selected.
Senate President Kevin Meyer said the Legislature had already moved beyond the site issue.
House Speaker Mike Chenault also raised concerns about a lawsuit against Exxon over the Point Thomson field, which the governor had filed prior to taking office. He said without Point Thomson, no gas line would go forward.
Lawmakers said they’ll give the governor the benefit of the doubt until Thursday’s budget speech, which they hope, as Sen. John Coghill put it, there will be “more nuts and bolts.”
The governor did set the stage for his budget speech.
“While I don’t dispute the numbers, I do dispute the doom-and-gloom predictions. To those who say Alaska’s finest days are behind us, I say they are looking in the wrong direction,” Walker said.
“Governor Wally Hickel used to say, ‘Before we had money, we had guts.’” Walker said.
And what Walker has sought to prove through his campaign and his early days in office is that he’s fearless. Thursday night will be another opportunity to drive that message home.
Republican leaders say they did like the governor’s appeal to them to remember their “sacred obligation” over the next four years to make sure Alaska is better off during their watch.
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