Gov. Mike Dunleavy invoked campaign themes such as a war on fentanyl, offered a long list of bipartisan-minded proposals including greatly extending Medicaid coverage for new mothers, and continued pitching a new financial plan that relies on carbon credit revenues during the first State of the State speech of his second term Monday night.
The biggest statewide media headlines and social media reaction, however, came from an unscripted add-on to the end of his speech when he said he wants to make Alaska “the most pro-life state in the entire country.”
The Republican governor’s speech to a joint session of the Alaska State Legislature reiterated many lines from during and after his successful reelection campaign, including how the next four months will set Alaska’s course not just for the next four years, but for the next 50 years and beyond.”
“We have a chance in this session to change the course of Alaska’s history,” he said. “But we won’t change history by accepting things the way they are, or the way they’ve always been.”
A response by leaders of the state Senate’s bipartisan majority, consisting of nine Democrats and eight Republicans, immediately after the speech praised the governor’s overall tone and many of his proposals, especially compared to his first address four years ago they categorized as combative.
“What I saw is he’s much more in touch with reality now than he was then,” said Sen. Donny Olson, a Golovin Democrat.
Sen. Bert Stedman, a Sitka Republican who co-chairs the Senate Finance Committee, responded to Dunleavy’s repeated claims the state is on sounder fiscal footing than four years ago by agreeing with the overall characterization since oil prices are about $80 a barrel now compared to about $30 at the low point of the governor’s first term. But the senator also noted the governor’s proposed budget for next year has a deficit that will likely take up to $400 million of the state’s $2 billion in reserve funds to cover, not counting any additional new spending the governor’s new proposals may require.
“We have some adjusting to do,” Stedman said, adding lawmakers would have to come up with a good compromise.
House Minority Leader Calvin Schrage, an Anchorage independent, said in a statement his caucus is “encouraged that the Governor is focused on making Alaska a great place to raise a family,” according to the Associated Press. Schrage said adding money for schools, addressing pensions for teachers and public safety officers and increasing investments in maternal and children’s health are ways to do that.
Both Dunleavy’s speech and Senate majority response were broadcast live on Gavel Alaska.
Speech text vs. context
Dunleavy, who unlike four years ago couldn’t blame current difficulties on his predecessor, acknowledged a series of problems during his first term including a $1.6 billion deficit at the onset of his first term, credit downgrades, a “record-breaking crime wave” and at times a sharp drop in oil prices. But he also claimed credit for accomplishments despite those problems as well as larger-scale setbacks such as the COVID-19 pandemic and inflation.
“In the midst of it all, we delivered the biggest PFD in history last fall at a time when Alaskans needed it the most,” he said, referring to the divided that was the second-highest ever when adjusted for inflation. “Our credit outlook is improved, and our debts and liabilities are down.”
The PFD claim wasn’t the only one where facts could be disputed and/or were lacking context.
Dunleavy repeated a frequent claim his proposed operating budget for next year is nearly 4% lower than the one he “inherited” in 2019. But there are multiple ways to calculate the budget, such as the total state budget including capital spending (down 1.3% since 2019, according to the governor’s budget office) and factoring in other spending — such as a huge infusion of federal funds the past couple of year that substituted for state money in areas such as the ferry system. Furthermore, there’s the almost-always inevitable question of how much supplemental funding will be needed after the budget is signed and how that compares year-to-year.
Similarly, his early claim about a “record-breaking crime wave” was seemingly contradicted by his later claim “it reached a 19-year high in 2017,” while his claim of the rate reaching a 41-year low in 2021 omits the fact that rates declined nationally and globally then due to reduced activity during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dunleavy also declared, “I’ve never heard an Alaskan worry about what they’re doing in Arkansas” when justifying his $10 million request for “statehood defense” efforts against what he called federal government intrusion on the state’s ability to develop its natural resources. But Arkansas was a leader in a lawsuit against a provision in the American Rescue Plan that would prevent states from using funds from the bill to offset tax cuts.
Dunleavy also asserted “we’ve never had a major mining accident in Alaska,” which overlooks the two people killed in a machinery accident at the Alaska Gold Company’s Nome operations in 2007. The comment also ignores several pre-statehood accidents such as the 39 people killed in the Mexican Mine Disaster in Juneau in 1910, although the governor certainly could fairly claim he meant since statehood.
A bipartisan tone, with a defensive exception
The “statehood defense” portion of the speech was a confrontational contrast to most of the address, as Dunleavy blasted “environmental extremists, NIMBYists and Luddites” in addition to the federal government,
“We won’t accept that we’re second rate, that we’re just a piece of the park system, that we’re just a billionaires’ playground to set up for glamping for a couple weeks and then take off for Davos in their private jets,” Dunleavy said.
Among the portions of Dunleavy’s speech getting the most bipartisan applause was his pledge to declare war on fentanyl, an opioid many times more powerful than heroin, by introducing legislation to increase the penalty for people making sales of the drug that result in death.
”Right now, under current law, this act can only be charged as manslaughter with a maximum sentence of just 20 years,” he said. “Under my legislation, we’ll increase this penalty to second-degree murder with a sentence of up to 99 years. These people deserve nothing less.”
Dunleavy also pledged to support treatment efforts that “will cost money,” asserting the state’s improved financial situation compared to four years ago will allow more such programs. Among other such health care proposals getting bipartisan approval was extending assistance to new mothers.
“We are asking for funding to expand postpartum Medicaid coverage from 60 days to 12 months to ensure that moms and their children get off to a healthy start in life,” he said.. “This initiative will also fund recruitment and retention of the health care professionals we need to fill the 5,000 jobs that will be required over the next 10 years.”
The governor also honored several “Resilient Alaskans” during the speech for “their impactful work for Alaska.”
Among them was Katie Botz, a Juneau school bus driver whose advocacy on behalf of victims of violent crime has made her a familiar figure to many lawmakers at the Capitol. Among other advocacy efforts, she testified during last year’s legislative session about her attempt over many years to overcome the trauma of being a rape victim at the age of 12.
Other residents honored include Heidi Lieb-Williams of Anchorage, chair of the Governor’s Council for Disabilities and Special Education; Daisy Lockwood Katcheak, city administrator of Stebbins, who played a key local administrative role in recovery efforts following Typhoon Merbok; and Sgt. Carlos “Julian” Navarro, Village Public Safety Officer in Golovin for the past 13 years also involved in the typhoon recovery and other emergency service efforts.
Also named as honorees were Elijah Moses, 2, and Francine Jo, who is three months old, the children of independent Rep. Josiah Patkotak of Utqiagvik and his wife Flora, in what the governor called a symbolic representation about “taking action today against what it will mean tomorrow.” The youths were named in place of nine-month-old twins of a Juneau couple originally selected who requested on Monday to be removed as honorees.
Protests spur lively debate and surprisingly lively ending
Dunleavy’s speech followed two demonstrations during the day, both on issues he and legislators subsequently discussed.
The first during the noon hours was an annual rally to protest abortion, featuring an opening prayer for the dozens of people attending and several state lawmakers, with the governor previously stating he intends to propose limiting abortion access in Alaska by introducing an amendment to the state Constitution’s privacy clause.
Senate President Gary Stevens, a Kodiak Republican, said during the leadership’s response one of the things he wished the governor discussed more was specifics about properly funding education.
“I don’t think we heard much specificity about how he would solve the problem.” he said.
The second demonstration — with a much larger crowd, an opening acknowledgment of being on Tlingit land and mostly Democratic politicians — was by educators seeking an increase to the per-student funding formula that’s remained flat for several years, with the governor calling for another year of flat funding in his budget for next year.
Dunleavy, in remarks at the end of the speech not included in his preliminary draft, addressed the abortion issue by reiterating his campaign line of wanting “to make Alaska the most pro-life state in the country.”
“Like many of you, I happen to like people and we happen to need more people in Alaska, not less,” he said.
Sen. Elvi Gray-Jackson, an Anchorage Democrat, said after the speech she opposes an amendment restricting abortion rights, but Stevens said “we hope to at least have a hearing on what the governor proposes.”