It was Salesman Walker who spoke from the podium Thursday night in the Alaska Capitol.
Delivering his second State of the State address, Gov. Bill Walker used humor, metaphor and anecdote to outline his plan for solving the state’s $3.5 billion deficit, then requested the Legislature’s help implementing that plan.
“We will not be able to accomplish what we need to do without working together,” Walker said.
The core of Walker’s proposal is the New Sustainable Alaska Plan, an idea unveiled in the fall that turns the Alaska Permanent Fund into a money factory whose earnings partially fund state government. Permanent Fund Dividends would continue but be linked directly to state oil and gas revenue, rising and falling with global prices.
On its own, that proposal isn’t enough to erase the deficit, barring a sudden and drastic rise in oil prices. Walker proposes a range of tax increases affecting gasoline, cigarettes, alcohol, mining, fisheries and tourism. Walker also proposes a state income tax based on a percentage of each Alaskan’s federal income tax payment.
In his speech, Walker said his plan is “written in pencil” and may be changed by lawmakers, but something must be done now.
“As governor, I am flexible on the details of a fiscal plan, as long as the outcome meets basic tests of fairness and sustainability. I am not flexible, however, on our need to get there this year,” he said.
He said he understands that suggesting taxes and changes to the Permanent Fund may not be popular. “To those who question my political wisdom, I admit I may not be politically savvy. But I am a loyal son of this great land, and as your governor, I will always put Alaska’s interests above my own.”
That remark garnered the largest sustained applause of the night, and after the speech ─ which ended with a plea to “pull together” and a request for divine intercession ─ Rep. Cathy Munoz, R-Juneau, had it highlighted in her notebook.
“It was the best gubernatorial (state of the state) speech I’ve heard, and this is my eighth,” she said. “It inspired, it spoke to the strength of Alaskans working together. He used terrific analogy and terrific history of his own family experience and left me feeling really energized about the work ahead.”
Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake, was a bit more equivocal. “We’re going to have to pull together, sure, but there’s a lot of different opinions out there,” he said. “I don’t know where we’re going to end up at the end of the day.”
Similarly, Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, said he thinks Walker’s plan is “too complicated.”
Rep. Adam Wool, D-Fairbanks, was optimistic, even if the governor’s plan isn’t what the Legislature ultimately decides. “I think something’s going to happen,” he said. “I personally don’t think we’re going to kick the can.”
The Alaska Republican Party offered the harshest words after the speech, with spokeswoman Suzanne Downing writing, “What he said tonight sounded less like vision for the future, and more like a vision of bigger, bloated government, a reflection of the liberal Democrats to whom he is now beholden.”
Walker was interrupted by eight rounds of applause during his 49-minute address, with most applause coming as the governor touched on non-budget items.
During his speech, Walker wore a pin on his lapel that showed an outline of Alaska with two pipelines. He made his most significant divergence from his prepared remarks to talk about the pin and his continued support for a natural gas pipeline, something that earned applause. The pipeline is expected to be an issue in a special session of the Legislature later this year.
His policy pledges also included support for a prison reform bill introduced by Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, and a pledge to create a public integrity unit in the Alaska Department of Law. That department will “investigate officer-involved shootings, deaths in state custody and allegations of government corruption,” Walker said.
Most of his time at the podium, however, was focused on encouraging the Legislature to solve the state’s budget crisis.
“Now is the time to put aside politics as usual. Now is the time for bold steps and new beginnings,” Walker said. “The state of our state is strongest when we pull together. This is the Alaska that I love. This is the Alaska I have always known.”