Empire Readers Council Editorial: Walker-Mallott earn B- grade in 2015

  • Friday, January 1, 2016 1:03am
  • Opinion

One year into the administration of Gov. Bill Walker and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott is a good time to take stock and evaluate how they are conducting matters of state for Alaska. We believe Walker and Mallott deserve a decent passing grade. Based on their efficiency and effectiveness, we give them an overall average grade of B- for their first year.

Walker and Mallott were elected in one of the most remarkable elections held in Alaska. The two candidates for governor set aside personal ambition and some policy differences in order to successfully advance a shared political agenda.

In doing so, they demonstrated excellent personal judgment and the kind of nimble political skills Alaska clearly requires. More importantly, they campaigned on a thoughtful political platform that called for putting Alaska and Alaskans first when administering state government. To a significant degree, Walker and Mallott won because they are, and were, perceived as being steadfast Alaskans committed to advancing the interests of Alaska and our citizens foremost.

In many regards, the administration of Walker and Mallott has shown fidelity to the most significant promises they made during the campaign. For that, their administration warrants high marks.

After seeking cooperation from a mostly defiant Legislature in order to extend Medicaid coverage to needy Alaskans, Walker ultimately sidestepped the Legislature and extended Medicaid coverage by administrative action. Check the box on delivering a large campaign promise most Alaskans clearly support.

And, to nobody’s surprise, Walker has diligently pursued the long-cherished dream of moving orphaned North Slope gas to domestic and foreign markets. Walker’s background in pursuing the gas-to-market project is extensive. The odds of advancing this difficult project have never been greater, but if anyone can accomplish this formidable task, Walker is the most likely given his skill and persistence.

In terms of addressing our state’s potentially devastating state government fiscal gap, the Walker Administration deserves praise for advancing creative and credible proposals that would provide a stable source of funding for critical governmental needs. Whether or not you like the Walker plan to add oil revenues to the Permanent Fund and draw on the account for public services, at least the governor has advanced a proposal that would provide stability and certainty for state government funding and operations. Walker has acted in a mature and measured fashion on this most difficult topic, for which he deserves credit.

Given that Mallott and Walker have made good on a significant campaign promise favored by most Alaskans, have worked diligently to advance gas development and brought forward a creative and positive government funding fiscal plan, why do they merit only a slightly above-average report card ranking?

We believe the Walker and Mallott administration has too often ignored the less glamorous but critically important details of state government. Walker was elected as governor to carry out duties that require him to act as the Chief Executive Officer of Alaska, a task he too often has ignored or left to other individuals, sometimes with mediocre or even poor results.

The widespread critique by many longtime observers of Alaska politics is that the internal communications in the Walker and Mallott administration are seriously deficient. On many topics and issues of concern, a coherent and demonstrably acceptable policy position is lacking. Individual bureaucrats and agencies are too often allowed to formulate policy without regard to the overall needs of the average Alaskan. An unsettling ad hoc quality to decision-making permeates the Walker and Mallott administration.

The brilliant messaging of the Walker and Mallott campaign signaling that Alaska First! would be the North Star by which the ship of state was steered has been replaced in many instances by a paradigm of putting consultants, bureaucratic prerogatives or expediency first. A good example of this failure to put Alaska first is the decision not to promptly halt studies of unrealistic mega projects that will never be constructed and which Walker’s and Mallott’s transition team and sensible political advisors recommended they terminate in short order.

To an extent that is painful to behold, much of the mischief that is apparent in the day-to-day governance of the Walker and Mallott administration is due to a systemic failure to prepare a proper foundation for advancing the governor’s and lieutenant governor’s worthy goals. The governor made a number of commitments to the electorate during the campaign. He promised that he would appoint individuals based on merit and competence. In far too many cases, individuals were retained, hired or in some cases reprised who were not competent. On a more parochial level, he has not held the commissioners he has appointed to his campaign promise of having them live in Juneau, the capital of Alaska.

Another significant area that detracts substantially from Walker’s and Mallott’s administration is related to external communications. The governor’s ability to convey his message to the public and make clear his intentions too often is conducted on an ad hoc basis. While Walker and Mallott both have an engaging and personally charming style, their overall communications with the press, the public and the Legislature are in shambles. Calls from reporters on deadline are ignored or shuffled about in a haphazard way. The governor’s communication with the legislative branch on a day-to-day basis needs significant improvement in order for the governor and this administration to achieve success.

Walker’s polling numbers are high, a reflection of his genial and easy manner and his willingness to take on the big issues facing Alaska. He is, after all, an Alaskan to the core of his soul and his ability to communicate with the average Alaskan on the campaign trail is part of what earned him the trust of a large block of our citizens. But Walker’s inattention to the details of ordinary government administration borders on a flirtation with hubris. His failure to properly establish a solid foundation for the government he leads by staffing key positions with Alaskans harboring the skill and ability to put Alaska first when managing matters of state is telling.

Walker’s and Mallott’s public popularity will inevitably be subject to a substantial reversal of fortune if they fail to take necessary and critical steps to properly realign the currently unresponsive bureaucracy under their command and devise a more systematic political decision-making structure. Sooner or later, the ad hoc decision-making process that is a hallmark of the Walker administration is going to doom the governor’s efforts to put Alaska first.

In many regards, Walker and Mallott have performed admirably in very difficult circumstances. We wish Bill Walker and Byron Mallott best wishes and hope they achieve great success in the New Year. Alaska’s success and our collective future depends on their ability to put Alaska first and get the day-to-day job of governing right in order to accomplish the monumental task of addressing the state’s fiscal gap.

• Empire Readers’ Council editorials are written by members Joe Geldhof, Abby Lowell, Tom Rutecki and Alex Wertheimer. The council is currently seeking members; interested parties should contact Publisher Rustan Burton at rustan.burton@juneauempire.com.

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