Governor’s weekend retreat to look beyond the budget impasse

Gov. Bill Walker on April 18. 2015. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)
Gov. Bill Walker on April 18. 2015. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

Weekend plans for about 175 diverse and influential Alaskans include right-sizing state government, working with interactive financial models and frank talk about the third rail of Alaska politics — revenue, taxes and tapping the Permanent Fund.

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Gov. Bill Walker and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott are sponsoring the weekend retreat on building a sustainable future at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. They’ll be sounding boards for big picture policy discussions about the state’s long-term fiscal future.

Walker says the location of the retreat has historical significance.

“It will be at the same site where the drafting of the Alaska Constitution took place in 1959. So, I like going back to our roots, so to speak. I like that it’s at the university campus,” he says. “We’re gonna stay in the dorms. The vast majority of us are going to stay in the dorms at UAF.”

Him included.

“I think the First Lady is going to be my roommate. I’m hoping she will be, anyways,” Walker says.

He says he’s looking forward to the collegiate atmosphere and dialogue. Many of the people invited to participate are members of his transition team that met after he was elected in November.

While lawmakers are still at an impasse on the budget, and how to address a multibillion dollar deficit for the fiscal year that begins in July, that’s not what this weekend is about.

“We’re moving on beyond the budget impasse. What we want to talk about (is) the next 10 years, the next 20 years, the next 50 years in Alaska.”

Or, as Gunnar Knapp puts it, “We can’t go around having our cake and eating it, too.”

Knapp has studied the state’s fiscal situation for months as director of the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage. This weekend he’ll be speaking and listening.

“It won’t work anymore to say, ‘I demand this, this and this’ in terms of schools, ferry service, or health or roads or troopers or whatever it is people want from the government,” he says. “And at the same time saying, ‘But I don’t want anybody, you know, using the Permanent Fund or asking me to pay taxes.’ You can’t have it both ways.”

The legislature’s finance analysts have repeatedly noted this year that even if every state-funded government worker were laid off, the state would still spend billions more than what is forecast in revenue.

Since January, Knapp says he’s given at least 20 talks on the subject with various civic, education and business groups. Progress has been slow.

“You can’t go way out in front of what people are willing to talk about, even if you know — even if you’re in the legislature and the governor — and you know that eventually the conversation is going to have to get to those things. It is a process of education. … So it’s discouraging that we haven’t faced up to this more this year, but it’s probably just a practical reality of the political situation. Using the savings is the easiest thing to do.”

Knapp hopes that politically taboo fiscal matters will stop being taboo after this weekend.

“I’m not going there to advocate any particular solution,” Knapp says. “I’m just advocating an open conversation about the nature of the problem.”

The retreat itself is expected to be a frugal affair. Most of the participants are paying for their own travel. And dorms are a lot cheaper than hotels. There won’t be bunk beds, but participants may have to share dorm rooms, says Claire Richardson, staff to the lieutenant governor.

Richardson says she expects the state’s final bill to be under $150,000. A big chunk of that is a $37,000 contract for web and television coverage with, full disclosure, 360 North.

Live coverage begins at 6 p.m. Friday online and on 360 North television. For web streams, schedules and more about Building a Sustainable Future: Conversations with Alaskans, go to www.360north.org/sustainable-future/.