With allusions to grit, determination and self-reliance, Gov. Bill Walker delivered his annual State of the State address to Alaskans on Thursday night in the Alaska State Capitol.
While his speech was broadcast across the state on TV, radio and internet streams, his target audience seemed to be in the room with him.
“Bottom line: we need improved public safety, we need budget reform, we need a real fiscal plan and we need to energize our economy. These aren’t wants; they are needs, and it’s our responsibly to make it happen. Now,” Walker said.
Walker used the bully pulpit afforded by the speech to encourage lawmakers to address Alaska’s whale-sized $2.5 billion budget deficit by sharing the story of Chris Apassingok, a 17-year-old whaler from Gambell who successfully struck a bowhead during a hunt last year but was criticized by Outside animal-rights activists.
“Chris had plenty of opportunities to give up or get discouraged. But instead, he is standing tall as a leader for his people,” Walker said. “To that I say, Alaska is a great place because we are home to people like Chris; people who persevere and triumph in the face of adversity.”
Walker’s speech touched on climate change, education, crime and health care, but the governor spent the majority of his time on the state’s deficit and the ongoing economic recession.
Throughout the speech, Walker suggested resource development is the key to addressing those problems.
“Controlling our own destiny requires taking aggressive measures to access and develop those resources responsibly,” Walker said.
He called for continued and expanded oil development on the North Slope and said the state has just made another approach to the U.S. Department of Agriculture in an effort to end the “roadless rule” limiting logging in the Tongass National Forest.
The biggest aggressive measure, Walker said, is a trans-Alaska natural gas pipeline.
“The most promising economic opportunity to emerge has been the accelerated momentum to develop our huge natural gas reserves,” he said.
Walker diverted from his theme of self-sufficiency to promote the idea that trade links with Asia and China in particular are important to the state’s future. Walker said the state is planning a trade mission to Asia later this year.
A natural gas pipeline and the effects of trade deals are years, if not decades, away, and Walker returned toward the end of his speech to the state’s immediate fiscal crisis and the audience in front of him in the Capitol.
“Even with all the good news, there’s still one thing standing in the way of truly controlling our destiny, and that is our inability to get our own fiscal house in order,” Walker said.
Walker alluded to his support for a state tax — either a sales tax or an income tax — and suggested that a $1,200 dividend was appropriate if lawmakers decide to divert a portion of the Alaska Permanent Fund’s investment earnings to cover a slice of the state deficit.
He suggested that Alaskans are tired of hearing arguments and are ready for decisions.
“Frustration over divisive partisanship is evident, and Alaskans have had enough,” he said.
That was evident during the speech: The sole round of applause to begin in the gallery filled by ordinary citizens came when Walker talked about withholding the salary of legislators who fail to pass a budget on time.
“You don’t produce a budget, you don’t get paid? That’s the right one,” said Kevin McGee, president of the Anchorage chapter of the NAACP, who was sitting in the gallery.
Sitting next to McGee, Cal Williams of Anchorage said he found Walker’s speech “uplifting and promising.”
Williams, the NAACP chapter’s political director, said he appreciated Walker’s discussion of the state’s prison system and hopes to see more opportunities for people being released from prison.
The coalition House Majority praised Walker’s speech.
“Gov. Walker did a very good job tonight,” said House Majority Leader Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage.
Senate Majority Leader Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, offered a mixed review.
“I appreciate that a high proportion of the governor’s speech was positive and hopeful,” he said. “The Senate shares the governor’s enthusiasm that we have seen the bottom and the worst is behind us.”
Where the Senate disagrees, he said, is how the governor envisions fixing the deficit.
“What we don’t share is the fact that he believes it’s time to tax Alaskans as we begin to climb out of this recession,” he said.
Walker acknowledged that this is an election year but urged the Legislature to make tough decisions anyway. With an oblique reference to his own re-election bid, he said, “I am taking the field this session and will stay on the field until the session is done. I ask that none of us remain in the locker room trying to keep our uniforms clean in hopes of being in next year’s team picture.”
Entering his fourth year of office, Walker said he has not lost his optimism.
“It has certainly also been a tough three years. People ask me if I ever get discouraged, if I ever lose faith in the hope that started this administration,” he said. “Ultimately, it is my faith in what it means to be Alaskan; in the knowledge that Alaska is positioned to control its destiny; and in understanding the limitless potential that awaits us that secures my great hope in our great state.”
Walker’s 6,200-word speech was about 400 words shorter than the address he delivered to the Legislature in 2017. His 2016 speech was approximately 5,000 words. He needed 46 minutes to deliver his 2017 State of the State; this year’s address required 49 minutes.
Walker was escorted into the chamber by Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, and Sen. Natasha Von Imhof, R-Anchorage.
• Contact reporter James Brooks at email@example.com or call 523-2258.