The following Q&A was conducted with Gov. Bill Walker on Dec. 23, 2015, at the Juneau Empire. This is part three of the interview. Read parts one and two by clicking on this story at juneauempire.com.
Do you think some of the leaders in the Legislature have gotten over the fact that you don’t have an “R” behind your name any more? There seemed to be a lot of conflict during the last session.
Yeah, there was, and I’ll certainly acknowledge that I’m … looking for every way I can to make sure we don’t have that again. I can say … meetings I’ve had getting ready for this upcoming session have been very positive with the leadership. So, I’m looking for ways of making sure from my standpoint that it’s as smooth as possible.
I remember the morning after the (1964) earthquake, …I remember hearing somebody saying to my dad, “I wish we had yesterday’s problems.” We’re kind of that way right now in some respect because of where we are, (and) what we could argue about five years ago, I won’t have that argument now because now we’ve got about a few inches of free board left before water comes over the side — we need to figure this out.
Someone said, “Just come out and just show one piece at a time as far as how you fix this. Just show the sovereign wealth and don’t show all the rest.” I said Alaska needs to see the whole picture. …We show them, here’s all the pieces, all the tools out there that we have selected from about 35. We’ve laid these out and said these nine will resolve the problem. If someone takes one away, we hope that they’ll put something else back in…
You know, a lot of the discussion is about a sales tax versus an income tax — that solves $200 million of a $3.5 billion problem. We went with income tax for a couple of reasons: One, is we wanted to welcome to the solution out-of-state workers that come up and commute back and forth. There’s a significant amount of revenue that leaves Alaska that they get a pretty good deal on. We wanted to have that. We were sensitive to local governments that already had a sales tax, we didn’t want to stack our sales tax on top of their sales tax and make that particular community less competitive as a result. We want to be careful about that. We want to make sure it was deductible from the federal tax. And also for ease of collection — we have so many different communities that are spread out all over this great sate. I can’t imagine trying to force sales tax collection in some of the more remote areas. It would be very difficult to do. …So that’s how we landed on income tax.
Would we just absolutely draw the line? No we wouldn’t. … Logically, it makes more sense to us to do it that way. …It really brings … balance. I’ve had a number of interviews nationally, of course their angle on it is a bit different. There like, “There’s a state that doesn’t have an income tax or a state sales tax? We didn’t know there was one like that left.” That’s a little bit of a different message on the national (scene).
Of course, anytime I’m on national (media), whether I’m testifying for the Senate Energy Committee, which was a few weeks ago, or I’m on any sort of national TV or radio or publication at all — I always talk about access to our resources. Whether it’s timber, whether it’s mining, whether there’s oil in an empty oil pipeline, I always use that opportunity to talk about the statehood compact, the deal we didn’t get, how the federal government has not upheld its end of the deal when we became a state. Every challenge has a silver lining, I guess from our standpoint.
The road out of Juneau has been parked for a while, but it’s a shovel-ready project. We’ve spoken with labor unions that have come in here and talked to us about the kind of economic activity that something like that would generate, whether people drive it or not. Have your feelings changed on the road and whether or not this is something that you’d like to see move forward?
We haven’t completely parked it, it’s still going through a process. …We’re not really at a decision point right now because of the permitting process it’s going through, so we’ll see. I believe the next level of permitting comes from the Corps of Engineers… We’re not really at a decision point right now. Our capital budget is tied directly to federal funds. We haven’t said no to any federal funds and so we will have to address that when it’s appropriate (and) when we get to the permitting process.
Would you be willing release the funds to get the federal match? The project just needs a few million more from the state for full funding.
We would have to make that decision when we get there. First things first, and first is we’ve allowed to continue to put money in to allow for the permitting process to go through. We’ve used your analogy quite a bit, as far as moving some of these over into a parking lot at the appropriate time, not just be stalled in the middle of the road, and that’s kind of what we didn’t want to do so we’ve done that with the Ambler Road, allowed that to sort of continue on through a permitting process. Things that are tied to federal funding, it’s pretty hard to say no, because you don’t know how long that match rate is going to be around.
When do you expect to have a permanent replacement for the Department of Corrections commissioner, and do you think it will be the acting commissioner, Walt Monegan?
I don’t know that it’ll be him, but … in about three months, we’ll know who that’s going to be. We’re actively going through our search process right now. The issue with the Department of Corrections, it’s much bigger than replacing one person, it’s much, much bigger than that.
We have made the investigation … public. We have gone to each of the families, gone out to the villages where the family members are of two of the individuals who died in prison. My decision was we’ll make those videos public, but the decision was up to the family members. We can go through years of litigation, back and forth, trying to keep it confidential, and I thought I don’t want to do that. But I don’t want a family member to say “We don’t appreciate that.” So we have sent Dean Williams out to Beaver and he met with family members and then he went to Saint Michaels, met with family members and they really, really appreciated that. I stopped in on one of the groups of family members in Anchorage that came in to view the video. They were just so touched that we were doing that, that we were sensitive about that and pretty much have all said if this will preclude it from happening to somebody else, then we’re fine with that. It was a painful process to go through, for them to view this, but we have made the determination that we’re making them public.
The media tried looking into a situation at Lemon Creek, and every time we would go to DOC we were told no. We were even told once, “Don’t even bother asking us, you know you’re not going to get it.” What can Alaska do in order to have better transparency into different government agencies like this so it doesn’t require the governor to make these videos public?
I think I set the tone, and I have set the tone on that. I’ve made some people uncomfortable. I’ve heard from some folks that are uncomfortable, not families, but people in the system and I think that when you release videos unedited, it makes some people uncomfortable. But it made me uncomfortable watching the video, and we’re talking about a death, we’re talking about somebody who lost their life.
…The culture has to change at the top and that’s what we’re doing with corrections and that’s why we’re still working on it. There’s a ways to go, there’s quite a ways to go on a cultural shift on what is acceptable, what is not. It’s far beyond one person at the top to say, “We checked off the box, we fixed corrections.” We didn’t fix corrections, we acknowledged a systemic problem that we have. We do try to be as transparent as we can.
It drives me crazy that I’ve inherited a gas line process where every fourth word is “confidential” in the language that was put in. It just drives me crazy. We’re trying to change that on the tax credits so Alaskans know. I said if we’re going to reach into their pocket they need to know how the money is being spent. It’s really a cultural thing. We went into a lot of resistance, and that’s OK, because we want to be more transparent.
What can the media do assist in this?
When you see things that are done differently than you’ve seen in the past, acknowledge that. It might not be where you like it to be — I think we’re going to get pretty close to where you want it to be, quite honestly, because I think we suffer from way too much confidentiality.
Confidentiality sometimes protects the state as much as it does who you’re negotiating with, and sometimes it’s been used … as “don’t look at what we’re doing because it’s not very good.” So we want to change that, and we want people to know that we’re going to make things available, and not as a result of losing a piece of litigation with a member of the media. We’re going to sit down and have that discussion.
It’s … sometimes a … heated discussion around my conference table about what gets released or not. People talk about the fiduciary obligation that I have to Alaska as far as in my role to protect them from litigation, and I say I fully understand that, but what’s right is right. If we’re making mistakes, if our system is making mistakes — and it was — the light of day is the best way. People will think differently when they’re making some decisions.
In South Dakota, the governor put together a committee of different media and government agency members to come up with ways to create transparency. Would you be open to that, because we score low in every category of transparency.
I’ll look at what he’s done. I’m a big fan of seeing what’s done elsewhere, if they’re doing something better than we are I’m happy to give them all the credit in the world. By bringing somebody in from the media — Grace Jang, she is a fierce advocate for transparency — I just hear her voice ring to my ear sometimes, “Governor, this will be the most transparent thing that we need to do.” And I like that a lot. She is a very strong advocate for transparency — she never has left her role from the media. She was the best investigative reporter in Anchorage, by far. That’s not why I selected her, but she still has that passion and she’s just all about being transparent. If there’s a way of blending that together, I’d certainly be open to that.
• Paula Ann Solis contributed to this report.