Gov. Bill Walker knew he’d leave office with unfinished business. Every elected official does. But he just wishes he didn’t have to spend almost his whole four-year term as Alaska’s governor dealing with one issue.
Navigating the state’s fiscal crisis took most of Walker’s time in office. As he sat in a third-floor conference room at the Alaska State Capitol and spoke to the Empire about his time in office, he said that was one of the biggest surprises for him.
“I did not anticipate we’d have to spend so much time wrestling with the fiscal situation,” Walker said. “We just decided that we have to get our fiscal house in order and I’m glad we did that.”
That culminated in passing Senate Bill 26, which set rules for using Permanent Fund money to pay for state spending, and Walker called it a “significant accomplishment by the Legislature.”
Walker, who brands himself as a non-partisan politician and often refers to his past as a “carpenter from Valdez,” said he also didn’t expect so many legislators to base their decisions on their chances of re-election. He didn’t get into specifics about who these people were, but said multiple people bluntly told him they were voting one way on a topic just so their voters would keep them in office.
Walker, 67, said the budget process didn’t derail all of his plans. He said he’s proud of Medicaid expansion, revamping the Alaska National Guard and making what he called “unprecedented” strides with Alaska Natives and tribal organizations throughout the state.
There was still more he wanted to see done, though.
He said he wanted to invest more in deferred maintenance around the state and he wanted to build more. In fact, he wishes he had invested some of the state’s savings into these projects. He said he would have used some of that money for the state’s retirement plans, he would have done infrastructure improvements to roads in particular.
“There’s so much I could have done with that,” Walker said. “I come from a builder’s background. I ran for governor to build.”
In terms of Southeast-specific accomplishments and wishes, Walker said he was proud of the way his administration helped promote better access to Southeast for tourism and resource development. He was also happy to see the Alaska-class ferry project (which aims to have ferries built by Alaskans with Alaska materials) get off the ground.
Walker said he likes to think that his administration “raised the bar” in terms of being accessible in Juneau, and said he hopes incoming Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration will follow their lead. Dunleavy takes the oath of office next week.
Walker didn’t have much of a history in Southeast before taking office, so living in Juneau and spending time in the region were also new to him. Along with former Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott — who was raised in Southeast — Walker was able to feel at home in Juneau and in Southeast.
“It sort of took me back to my roots a little. Juneau’s more like Valdez than Anchorage is, by far,” Walker said. “I love ice skating here and doing other things, whether Treadwell (Arena) rink or out on the lake, going fishing.”
He said he and Mallott would go out fishing from time to time. Mallott resigned unexpectedly Oct. 16 for what were referred to as “inappropriate comments” at the time. Since then, little has come to light except that Mallott said something inappropriate to a woman, Walker said.
Walker declined to talk very in-depth about Mallott’s comment and resignation, but said he and Mallott still talk every day and called him “a very dear friend.” Walker saluted the fact that Mallott took responsibility and immediately gave up his spot instead of drawing it out.
He saluted the efforts of current Lt. Gov. Valerie Nurr’araaluk Davidson, who took over for Mallott.
“She’s not just stood in,” Walker said. “She leaned in.”
As for what’s next, Walker said he’s gotten “a number of interesting offers,” mostly in the resource development realm. First, he said he’s hoping to travel with Donna and spend time with family.
He’s already gotten to have a little down time recently, despite having to finalize his budget and tie up loose ends. He ended up at his cabin outside of Valdez for a short time recently and went ice fishing, he said.
While on the way out to the lake, he came across a tree that had fallen in the middle of the road. He got out his chainsaw and cut the tree into firewood.
“It felt pretty good to do that,” Walker said. “I’ve got to tell you, it really did. None of that required 11 votes from the Senate or 21 votes from the House.”
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.