A few hours before Gov. Bill Walker delivered his State of the State address on Thursday, a state Senate panel received pointed advice from newly-minted Commerce Commissioner Mike Navarre.

“I’d like to see us dial down on some of the political rhetoric that we sometimes hear,” Navarre told the Senate Labor & Commerce Committee during a hearing on the state’s economic future.  

Navarre was joined by Britteny Cioni-Haywood, his division director for the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development. Cioni-Haywood presented a summary of the state’s recently drafted economic strategy.

The briefing featured broad priorities for the first year, including strengthening existing sectors like oil and gas, and mining; maximizing employment opportunity for Alaska’s seafood industry and making sure rural Alaska has enough tools and resources to grow their businesses.

The plan is a product of two years of meetings and surveys among small businesses, major industries and individuals.

It’s a two-year project underwritten by a $100,000 federal grant, carried out by the Commerce Department and a committee made up of 80 people to include business leaders.

Navarre said he hopes an election year won’t derail any progress.

“We’re going into an election year, so we may not be as successful at that as we may like to,” said Navarre, who is fresh off his tenure as the Kenai Peninsula Borough mayor.

“A common plan or vision for where we want Alaska to be in five years from now, 10 years from now and long-term planning oftentimes runs into short-term election cycles-- which compromises the ability to be effective at that.”

A panel of business leaders also weighed in on the state’s economic future.

No one could ignore the state’s unemployment rate being among the highest nationally at 7.2 percent, Alaska’s recent population decline and being hit by decisions outside the state like recent news of three Sam’s Club stores shutting down.

“We all agree we are in a recession,” said panelist Curtis Thayer, president and CEO of the Alaska Chamber of Commerce and former Department of Administration commissioner. “The question is, have we hit bottom? I can’t answer that today. I certainly know I don’t want to languish at the bottom if that’s where we’re at.”

But the panelists remained bullish, citing several recent developments and signs of growth:

  • The North Slope enjoyed its second straight year of increased production and the Department of Natural Resources forecasted a third year of growth.
  • Alaska received a 3 percent increase of cruise ship passengers and the Alaska Travel Industry Association forecasts another 7 percent boost in 2018.
  • Alaska is closer than it's ever been with prospects of exploring for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve' thanks to the recent tax legislation Congress passed.
  • North Slope oil prices are inching closer to $70 a barrel; two years ago it was in the $30 range.

This prompted a second warning, this time from Kara Moriarty, executive director of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association.

Moriarty told the five-person panel that two bills, one to strengthen permitting requirements designed to protect salmon habitats, and a second to raise oil taxes, will not foster investment.

“We are not out of the woods yet,” Moriarty said. “Anything that adds cost to our business makes it challenging to grow our business.”

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