Walker Sketches Agenda In State Of State Address

(Skip Gray/360North)
(Skip Gray/360North)

In his first State of the State address to the Legislature, Gov. Bill Walker spoke broadly of the need to address the state’s financial shortfall and the importance of building a natural gas pipeline. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports that while its spirit was praised, legislative leaders found it short on detail.

In the 39 minutes he spoke, Gov. Bill Walker offered a few specifics on how he would he would approach his first session in office.

He announced a special investigator tasked with looking into the Alaska National Guard would be named Thursday.

“That investigator will have full access to all paper and electronic evidence to get to the bottom of the allegations of sexual assault, misconduct and cover-up. As the Commander in Chief of the Alaska National Guard, let me assure you that the perpetrators will be brought to justice, face expulsion, incarceration or both.”

Walker announced he would sign a bill known as “Erin’s Law” to educate children on what sexual abuse is and how to report it if they are victims.

“Members of the Legislature: if you send this bill to my desk, I will sign it and we will take an important step toward protecting the lives of so many young, precious Alaskans,” said Walker.

And Walker announced that Craig Fleener — his former running mate, who was bumped off the ticket when his campaign merged with that of Democratic candidate Byron Mallott — would be treated as a member of his Cabinet and given a portfolio of Arctic issues.

The rest of his speech reprised many of his campaign themes, and outlined his goals as governor in looser terms. Unlike past governors, he did not preview specific pieces of legislation he planned to introduce.

Walker committed to building a natural gas pipeline — a priority for Alaska lawmakers since the supply was discovered — and highlighted his work courting Asian buyers for the resource. He recommitted to accepting federal dollars for expanded Medicaid coverage in Alaska. Walker also said he wants to “protect” education funding to the “greatest extent “possible” as the state wrestles with a multi-billion-dollar shortfall. But he did not say it would be immune to cuts.

“We will continue to invest in education as it is one of the highest priorities of this state,” said Walker. “But not at the rate we could have when oil was over $100 per barrel.”

The response from the Legislature was cordial. As a governor who ran for office outside of the primary system, Walker does not have party ties to the Legislature’s Republican majorities. But lines about lowering energy prices and developing the state’s workforce triggered applause that spanned party lines. When talking about the state’s economy, mentions of the Alaskan Brewery and the Mat-Su’s carrots even prompted a couple of thumbs-up gestures.

But after the speech, Republican leaders said the speech was too general.

“We will not fix our problems on beer and carrots,” said House Rules Chair Craig Johnson.

The Anchorage Republican said he “liked the optimism,” but he wanted more details from Walker.

“He said we need to make a plan, and I kept waiting for it and waiting for it,” said Johnson, “Megaprojects, and it’s not there. Low cost energy. No plan there. Value added resources. No plan.”

Senate Majority Leader John Coghill thought Walker might be too optimistic about some of his priorities, like Medicaid expansion.

“I think he’s just going to find that’s going to be a very difficult thing to do,” said Coghill. “It does cost the State of Alaska money. It’s going to cost us new employees.”

But House Speaker Mike Chenault softened some of the criticism by noting that Walker is new to the office.

“We do have to give him a pass on some issues that we may feel is important, because we know the issue and it’s an issue that he doesn’t,” said Chenault.

Meanwhile, Democrats were more complimentary. Senate Minority Leader Berta Gardner described the speech as “inspirational,” and appreciated the call for Alaskans to come together regardless of party.

“What I heard was a lot of confirmation of things we believed of him,” said Gardner.

Walker will give a second speech devoted exclusively to the budget on Thursday night.