Q&A: Why should Bill Walker keep his job for 4 more years?
Should Gov. Bill Walker keep his job for another four years?
The political battle over how Alaskans should answer that question next fall began in earnest earlier this week when the incumbent announced that he and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott will seek another term in office, again running as independents rather than under the banner of either major political party.
Republicans immediately came out swinging against Walker-Mallott, and despite endorsing the ticket last time around, Democrats offered only tepid support as that party is waiting to see if one of their own will secure the gubernatorial nomination instead.
On Monday, Walker sat down with Channel 2 News to make a case for voters to give him another term at the helm of state government.
I'll be honest: it seemed for a while there like you were governing in a way that you were not particularly concerned with getting re-elected: your advocacy for an income tax, your veto of money for Permanent Fund dividends, and really, it feels like your administration at one point or another has touched every sacred cow that's existed in Alaska politics for a long time.
So, when did you decide to run for re-election, and why are you running after some of the unpopular stances you’ve taken?
"You're right. I did not make decisions based upon reelection. I said that during my state-of-the-state: that I had ran for the job to do the job. And that's what I was hired to do, and I felt that's what Alaska deserved.
Looking at the future of the state, Alaska, I think, deserves a decision-making team that's not partisan, that bases every decision on what's best for Alaska and not necessarily on what the party wants, or partisan slant – one direction or the other.”
You’re the only Independent governor in the country at this point. It’s a difficult path. Why are you not running non-affiliated again instead of seeking the nomination of the Democratic Party?
“Well, because I'm Independent. My background has been Republican, and I'm much more comfortable as an Independent than a partisan. I think Alaska has really benefitted from having an independent, nonpartisan administration.
I've always said, ‘Good ideas – no one party has a monopoly on good ideas.’ There are good ideas from Republicans. There are good ideas from the Democrats. What I'm able to do is draw from all those ideas and make the best decision.”
Every time your name is in the news, I see someone post a link to Alaska Dispatch News’ 2014 gubernatorial candidate questionnaire. At the time, you said you opposed a Permanent Fund restructure, reducing dividends, and a broad-based tax. Here’s the exact question and answer:
So, how do you explain that shift to voters?
“First of all, you have to look at the whole quote. The whole quote talks about, so long as we are developing our resources to our maximum benefit and also talks about a sustainable budget. At that time, of course, the deficit was at $1.6 billion. It quickly grew to a $3.7 billion deficit.
We had to do something. I ran for this office because I'm a decision maker. I will solve problems, and I will throw political consequences aside to solve the problem. That's what I did. You can't do that as a partisan politician because you have a whole party to say, ‘Oh my gosh, don't touch this, don't do that.’ We just went out and solved the problem.
We had to take some steps that were not popular, certainly not popular with me. It was a very difficult decision that I had to make, but I don't regret having to make those decisions because they were necessary. We had to make some tough decisions, and we made them.”
This election could shape up a thousand different ways, but certainly you'll have a Republican challenger that has the benefit of party support when it comes to organizing, gathering donations, and just running a campaign. You may also have a Democratic challenger with those same benefits. How can you actually win against that?
“We will continue to do our job. We need to do what we're hired to do, so that will be first and foremost. And we'll continue to reach out to Alaskans as we did. That's how we got here.
The highest percentage of Independents are in Alaska, so I think we'll do it the same way: just one vote at a time, one Alaskan at a time. And we'll gather our signatures, and really it's the same that we did (in 2014.)”
I spoke with Tuckerman Babcock, after you filed for reelection. I want to read a quote from the GOP chair in that conversation because I suspect we're going to be hearing this in commercial form and throughout the campaign. He says:
What do you say to that line of attack?
"I'm not surprised at that from the far right. He's doing his job, and his job is different than mine. His job is to make sure a Republican gets elected. My job is to make sure decisions are made that are best for Alaskans and for Alaska's future. When you come into office and you end up shortly after with a $3.7 billion deficit, and now with the adjustments we've made, the cuts we've made, we've now brought that down based on the legislation that's been passed by both bodies -- not together but separately -- we're down to about a $700 million deficit.
We've taken about $3 billion out of the deficit with how we've restructured things. I expect that. It's their job. There's nothing wrong with what they do. It's their job to make sure they get a Republican in this position, but Alaskans I think deserve someone who's going to represent all Alaskans, not just one political party."
But what about the attack on your continued support of funding for AKLNG? Why has it been so difficult to move away from the gasline as the economics of the project have turned south?
"We're playing the hand we were dealt. We've not proposed new funding. We're using the funding that was in place when we came into office. We're using the structure that was in place. I said I would not start over, and we're playing this out.
Never in my wildest dreams did I think we would have a visit from the president of China here. We have an invitation for a visit with the president of (Korea), and the engagement we've had with the president of Tokyo Gas coming into Alaska and bringing his wife, spending time with us in Juneau.
We're not out proposing new money or new this or that, we're playing the hand that we inherited on the gasline.
It creates 70,000 jobs. The TAPS pipeline created 70,000 jobs. When you're in a state with the highest unemployment in the nation, and you have a project that your predecessors have spent $600 million on to advance, to walk away from something that could create that kind of unemployment I think would be kind of irresponsible."
One statement I noticed that hints at how you'll be attacked from the left came from Sen. Bill Wielechowski after you filed for re-election. In a statement, he said:
Essentially, he characterizes you as too pro-industry when it comes to oil and gas tax policy, and casts you as a social conservative. What do you say to that, to the idea that you'll struggle to pick up support from some of the Democratic voters that helped you get into office?
"I think that just shows, when one side is saying I'm pro-oil and the other side saying I'm anti-oil, maybe I'm right where I need to be. That's because I'm not pro- or anti- either of those. I'm pro-Alaska. And that's what I get to do: I don't have to pick a side, sort of a partisan side of what to be in a party. I'm just an Alaskan.
I'm a lifelong Alaskan, and I've made every decision that's best for Alaska. When I'm getting pushback from the right and the left, maybe I'm where I need to be. ... I think you look at my record, and it'd be pretty hard to tell if I'm leaning one direction or another."
Is it concerning to you at all that the Binkley family may soon own Alaska's largest newspaper and that a member of that family is rumored to be considering a run against you?"
"It's not. My focus really is fixing Alaska right now."
Are you worried that Democrats – and the coalitions that usually go with Democrats, from labor unions to rural voters to Native organizations, the groups that did support you last time – will abandon you en masse and migrate over to support Mark Begich or whoever ends up being the party nominee?
"I don't spend a lot of time trying to second-guess what somebody else is going to do. Lieutenant Governor Mallott and I decided that we wanted to seek a second term, and we decided that we wanted to seek it the same way we arrived here. That's our focus. We don't spend a lot of time thinking about what somebody else may do or not do."
Sens. Mike Dunleavy and Bill Wielechowski both say the dividend does not need to be reduced to solve state government's money problems. Convince me they're wrong.
"It doesn't work. That's the problem. We've pointed out that it doesn't work because it requires certain assumptions on the price of oil, an assumption of rising price of oil. Believe me, if there were viable options other than reducing the dividend, we would have done that. That was a very, very difficult decision."
The key elements of the fiscal plan have not been achieved. If you are re-elected, how do you get the Legislature to work with you and to pass some or all of the key elements of the plan you've advocated for the past few years?
"They have already. The Senate voted the first year on the major piece of the fiscal plan, Senate Bill 26 restructuring the Permanent Fund. The Senate last year approved that as well, as did the House. It's just that there were differences in the bills, and they've gone to a conference committee. They have taken that action. They also voted and took action to stop the unsustainable cashable oil tax credits that were amounting in an unsustainable way. They've closed those off, both in Cook Inlet as well as on the North Slope. That's a significant step.
They haven't gotten everything done as quickly as I'd like them to get it done, and there's no question about that. But we are making some significant progress."
In hindsight, do you feel you made tactical or strategic mistakes in a way that you interacted with the Legislature?
I’ve wondered why you didn't pick a single piece of the fiscal plan – a Permanent Fund restructure, the biggest piece – and just hammer away for that until it's done.
I also wonder why you didn’t put out a budget that says, “OK, if we’re going to have a $2 billion deficit, this is what government would look like.
“It's one thing to come into a budget assuming there'd be no revenues at all, no new revenue at all, that there'd be no way of funding government other than off of our natural resources. That’s a state that I've never seen.
I was born in the territory of Alaska, and I've never seen an Alaska that would not – Alaskans who would not – want a good education for our children, that did not want to have good healthcare, did not want to have good public safety, a safer Alaska. Look what's going on with the opioid issues and others. We need to make sure we have public safety. So we need to go on and keep our roads plowed. These are basic services.
We have closed 40 state facilities. We have eliminated 80 state programs. And eliminated 3,000 positions. So that process has been ongoing.
Bringing it down to $1.2 billion, it would be an Alaska I've never seen before.
But we all knew that this day was coming. Governor Hammond spoke of it, and said if somebody doesn't change something - and that's back in 1976 he made that speech - then make a change, and stop living off - solely living off - of oil. This day was going to arrive. So it's not any big surprise that this day arrived, and I'm glad I'm governor when it arrived. Some governors have said to me, ‘Wouldn't you rather have been governor during a $140 oil? $120 oil?’
I'm sure it would have been much more pleasant, but it's - now calls for tough decisions - hard decisions. And you can't do a political poll, or see which way the wind's blowing to making decisions, because it's all blowing against you. There's no question about it. But you got to lean into this and make the right decisions. Not for Alaska today necessarily, but for Alaska of the next generation: the next 20 years, 50 years, 100 years, we really have to make this turn.
There's no state in the union that doesn't fund their services somehow through a broad based revenue. So we need to look at that."
Many Alaskans remain unconvinced of the need for big changes to the way state government is financed, regardless of the size of the deficit and regardless of the reality that savings accounts are running out fast. To what degree does the blame for this fall on you for not being able to convey the depth of the fiscal problems?
“We put together a full fiscal plan. We presented it to the Legislature. We had over 500 presentations around the state. We called Alaskans together in Fairbanks, stayed in the dorms and put together a fiscal plan that we presented – a full fiscal plan. We addressed it pretty aggressively to Alaskans about what would happen if we didn't make any changes. Then there were some in Legislature who felt waiting to see the price of oil come back up was the answer. The waiting process has cost us $14 billion: $14 billion out of our savings while we wait to resolve this. Now when it really comes down to it – and I've heard a number of legislators say this – it really comes down to what do we want in the way of government services and how are we going to pay for it? The days of oil paying for 90 percent of the government services just isn't there. So we had to decide. That's why we cut government spending by 43 percent while reducing the operating budget by $1.7 billion. We have 3,000 fewer state employees than we did before. We have gone through that process. We are going through that process. It's a matter of what services do we want, and how are we going to pay for them.”
One of the biggest decisions you've made in office was your unilateral move to expand access to Medicaid to thousands of low-income Alaskans. Republicans in Washington are looking closely at the possibility of eliminating the 90 percent of the bills the feds pick up for the expansion population, potentially taking coverage away from thousands or shifting hundreds of millions of dollars of expenses to the state. Did you make the right decision?
"Absolutely. Anytime you can provide healthcare coverage to 30,000 Alaskans, which is largely funded by a federal program that's coming out of our tax dollars when we pay our taxes, it's the right thing to do.
A number of people have come up to me and thanked me, people who have not had healthcare in the past. People have come up to me and said their lives were saved because they had early detection and diagnosis for diseases. That saves lives.
I absolutely do not regret that one bit. The decision I made to accept Medicaid expansion – I knew there would be litigation against me as a result of that, there was, and we prevailed on that – but now, other states are looking at doing the same thing as us."
Are you going to call lawmakers back this fall?
"Most likely. We're talking with leadership about timing and whatnot, but we won't do that unless there's a reason to. We won't call them back just to call them back. So we're working on how to tighten up that $700 million gap that's left. If it's possible to do that, we'll call them back, and if it's not then we most likely will not."
What are you considering putting on the call for a special session? An income tax again, making some version of a Permanent Fund restructure actually permanent...
"It has to be a consensus on how we build some sort of broad-based revenue, and that's certainly not necessarily just an income tax. Maybe that won't be the fix, but it has to be some vehicle that ties our economy with the services we provide. We'll work with them beforehand to decide what's most palatable to both bodies and present something."
What's your proudest accomplishment as governor?
"Submitting and presenting a full fiscal plan was significant. Medicaid expansion was significant. Putting Erin's Law and Bree's Law in a special session, to address the domestic violence and sexual assault issues in Alaska, was significant. Resolving the issues associated with the National Guard scandal that was there when we came into office, taking that on and resolving that. It's hard to pick one because it's just a process of solving problems that are very significant issues in this state.
Not being afraid to make tough decisions is really my trademark, that I don't shy away from something because I know it will be politically unpopular, but that's why we are in the situation we are. Many predecessors could have done what I've done, but it's not a popular thing to do."
Politics aside, you have a unique job. You're able to meet and interact with all types of people that most do not. What are some of the most memorable moments from the past few years?
"It's a long list. I'll probably start with Kaktovik, up there for when they celebrated their successful harvesting of three whales this year. It was very special.
Getting out to rural Alaska, it's been extremely special for me to do that. I've been able to tour medical facilities here in Anchorage and in Fairbanks, seeing what's happening there and advances we're having.
I'm able to see and meet people that I would not otherwise meet, and that's very special to me.
One of the most exciting moments for me was to be the second driver, the second sled of John Baker's team for the start of the Iditarod with my grandson, Porter, in the basket. That was really one of the highlights for me."