In Rare Appearance Before The Legislature, Walker Announces Plans For Point Thomson Lawsuit

(Skip Gray/KTOO)
(Skip Gray/KTOO)

Gov. Bill Walker has announced that on Friday, he will drop his Point Thomson lawsuit against the state and instead try to address his concerns with the settlement through a piece of legislation. It’s exactly what legislative leaders have been calling on him to do for the past two weeks. But the way Walker went about it left some of those same lawmakers less than amused. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports.

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The House Resources committee was scheduled to get an overview on the Point Thomson case on Wednesday afternoon. Bill Walker had filed the lawsuit when he was a private citizen in 2012. The litigation argued that a settlement between the executive branch and Exxon concerning the development of North Slope natural gas reserves violated state regulations. But now that Walker is governor, Republicans in the Legislature have questioned the propriety of having Alaska’s top official suing the state.

The Resources committee had invited the Department of Law to speak on Point Thomson. So, it was a surprise when they got the governor himself.

“Mr. Chairman and members of the committee, you asked for someone from my Administration to testify on the Point Thomson lawsuit that I brought several years ago as a public interest litigant,” said Walker. “I am here to talk to you directly about this and set the record straight.”

The last time a sitting governor spoke directly before a committee was in 2007, when Sarah Palin testified on an ethics bill.

First, Walker reviewed the history of the lawsuit. Then, he said he would drop the lawsuit upon filing legislation to change the way the state deals with oil and gas settlements. And after seven minutes of testifying, he said thank you, stood up, and walked out of the committee room, leaving some members stunned.

“I thought our understanding with the governor is that we would have time to ask questions of him before departing our committee?” asked Rep. Mike Hawker, an Anchorage Republican, of the committee chair.

After taking a brief at ease to collect themselves, the committee came back to order and tried to parse Walker’s statement. As that was happening, the Governor’s Office announced a press conference on Point Thomson would take place within the hour.

When Walker met with reporters, he said he had not reviewed the finalized Point Thomson legislation, but that it would not be “voluminous.” He added that he was tying the dropping of the lawsuit to the bill’s introduction rather than its passage because he did not think it was appropriate to pressure the Legislature that way. If lawmakers do not pass his legislation, Walker said he would consider the matter closed.

“Well, I’ve done all I can,” said Walker.

One of the questions from reporters was why Walker would take questions from them but not the House Resources committee. Walker said he had concerns about the fact that the lawsuit was still pending, and that a press conference was a fundamentally different venue from a legislative hearing.

“It could be an awkward situation,” said Walker. “I’m a strong believer in the separation of powers between me as an individual, and as governor, and their role as the Legislature. So, I was sensitive to that and didn’t think it was appropriate from me to stay and answer questions.”

But after the Resources hearing, Rep. Hawker said that addressing a committee without allowing for questions violated protocol.

“I’m personally very disappointed in the abrupt departure of the governor after we availed him the courtesy of addressing our committee,” said Hawker. “He turned it into a press event that he got up and walked away from, instead of allowing us the opportunity for a dialogue to raise some of the very questions that you all are raising here today.”

While he welcomed the decision to abandon the suit, Hawker felt that the committee should have been alerted to governor’s appearance earlier.

“We received notice about 10 minutes before the committee meeting that the governor wanted to come and say something. That’s all we had to go on,” said Hawker. “So, I’ve just to say the process — this is not good process.”

House Speaker Mike Chenault also had reservations about the roll-out of the Point Thomson announcement.

“That’s part of the problem is lack of communication in that form,” said Chenault. “If we knew what was going on, it makes the decision making a lot easier.”

Chenault added that he was pleased with the substance of the announcement, and that Walker is not putting conditions on the dropping of the Point Thomson suit.

“Regardless of whether the legislation moves through or not, he’s dropping the lawsuit. So he’s not going to try the lawsuit over passing the piece of legislation,” said Chenault. “That’s how it should be.”

Chenault said he could not comment on the likelihood that the bill will advance without seeing the text of the legislation.