Governor Bill Walker said today he’s heard from legislative staff that committee hearings are moving appropriately on budget discussions. He says he’s pleased with that and optimistic that the budget will be done within 90 days or at least within the constitutional framework to avoid the risk of a government shutdown, but the Governor says he’s disappointed that the House and Senate are still struggling to find consensus.
WALKER: I think it’s gonna take compromise. And I think everyone knows that the worst plan is no plan. And that’s what we have right now. We have no fiscal plan at this point. And waiting and hoping is not a plan, and that’s what we see happening with some in the Senate, is hoping that the price of oil goes back up. We have to figure out what size government we want, and how we wanna pay for it. It’s pretty basic.
TOWNSEND: What’s your level of concern about another year of there’s not a compromise, and how that may affect investment in the state’s economy?
WALKER: Well, it will continue the cloud of uncertainty that we have. And, you know, companies wondering, “Do we invest? Do we not? How are they going to fix their deficit?” And so, that creates a fog of uncertainty that we don’t need. That’s the other piece of this. That’s why several years ago, we introduced nine different pieces — a little bit here, a little bit there — not any one particular sector of our economy or our population. And they just have not engaged on that.
TOWNSEND: Senator Bill Wielechowski, an Anchorage Democrat, has proposed a constitutional amendment that would make the Permanent Fund Dividend guaranteed by the Constitution. What do you think about that? Do you support this? Do you like this idea?
WALKER: Well, what we’re doing, all we are to protect the Permanent Fund. Protect the Fund itself, so it does not get drawn down. So it’s there for generations and whatnot. So, I’d have to look and see what it would look like. Is it a formula? Is it a specific dollar amount? How is it structured? You know, I’m willing to go to areas that I’m not comfortable with to reach… to bring this to a close. And so, I tend to not draw firm lines and say, “I absolutely won’t this, won’t that.” And that’s part of the problem in Juneau. There’s a lot of folks that have told us all the things they won’t do, but what will they do is, I guess, my question to them.
TOWNSEND: Governor, you’ve suggested a payroll tax. There’s been calls for an income tax by others. The Anchorage Assembly approved municipal gas tax. Do you think lawmakers who have resisted new taxes in the past, may be coming around, or considering them now as some have sort of come around to using the Permanent Fund when, at one time, many lawmakers said no way, that’s not happening? That’s changed now. What do you think about taxes?
WALKER: Well, I think they’re seeing that our differed maintenance, what we had, the stimulus package that we put it, the Alaska Economic Stimulus Act, we put that into the recovery act to be able to do some deferred maintenance, which would be done in over 60 different communities across the state. Put people to work. We have the highest unemployment in the nation. The differed maintenance is a debt unpaid, and it continues to grow. So we thought it made a lot of sense to tie the revenue to not specifically growing the government, just fixing the infrastructure that we have. So we thought that made a lot of sense. We still think it makes sense. I’ve heard some discussion of other ways of funding that, and I’m certainly open to that. But let’s get on with putting Alaskans to work, bringing the economy out of the recession that we’re in and fix the… we’re gonna have to do that at some point.
TOWNSEND: There’s been several announcements over the last few months about new potential on the North Slope, NPR-A, now ANWR is, for the first time, a possibility. But these potentials are at least, probably, a decade away. Do you worry that there’s too much focus on more oil in TAPS in the future and not enough present focus on the budget right now?
WALKER: Well, I am concerned about that. Yes, we have seen in the last leases we had where the… probably the most we’ve seen in two decades as far as the amount of interest on the North Slope. But you’re right. It’s many years out before that oil gets into the TAPS. Now, there’s some oil that can get in sooner, and we’re trying to accelerate that if possible. Oil that’s already been discovered that just needs processing in order to get that into TAPS, but that’s a bit of a long game. It’s the short game, the immediate game, that we’re trying to play out before we run completely out of savings.