Gov. Mike Dunleavy gives his State of the State address at the Alaska State Capitol on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023, in Junuea, Alaska. (Clarise Larson/Juneau Empire)

Gov. Mike Dunleavy gives his State of the State address at the Alaska State Capitol on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023, in Junuea, Alaska. (Clarise Larson/Juneau Empire)

A chance ‘to change the course of Alaska’s history’

Dunleavy to deliver first State of State of 2nd term

Gov. Mike Dunleavy invoked campaign themes such as a war on fentanyl, offered a long list of bipartisan-minded proposals including greatly lengthening Medicaid coverage for new mothers, and continued pitching a new financial plan that relies on carbon credit revenues during the first State of the State speech of his second term Monday night.

The Republican governor’s speech to a joint session of the Alaska State Legislature reiterated many lines from during and after his successful reelection campaign, including how the next four months will set Alaska’s course not just for the next four years, but for the next 50 years and beyond.”

“We have a chance in this session to change the course of Alaska’s history,” he said. “But we won’t change history by accepting things the way they are, or the way they’ve always been.”

The governor, who unlike four years ago couldn’t blame current difficulties on his predecessor, acknowledged a series of problems during his first term including a $1.6 billion deficit at the onset of his first term, credit downgrades, a “record-breaking crime wave” and at times a sharp drop in oil prices. But he also claimed credit for accomplishments despite those problems as well as larger-scale setbacks such as the COVID-19 pandemic and inflation.

“In the midst of it all, we delivered the biggest PFD in history last fall at a time when Alaskans needed it the most,” he said, referring to the divided that was the second-highest ever when adjusted for inflation. “Our credit outlook is improved, and our debts and liabilities are down.”

A response by leaders of the state Senate’s bipartisan majority, consisting of nine Democrats and eight Republicans, immediately after the speech praised the governor’s overall tone and many of his proposals, especially compared to his first address four years ago they categorized as combative.

“What I saw is he’s much more in touch with reality now than he was then,” said Sen. Donny Olson, a Golovin Democrat.

State Sen. Bert Stedman, a Sitka Republican who co-chairs the Senate Finance Committee, responded to Dunleavy’s repeated claims the state is on sounder fiscal footing than four years ago by agreeing with the overall characterization since oil prices are about $80 a barrel now compared to about $30 at the low point of the governor’s first term. But the senator also noted the governor’s proposed budget for next year has a deficit that will likely take up to $400 million of the state’s $2 billion in reserve funds to cover, not counting any additional new spending the governor’s new proposals may require.

“We have some adjusting to do … and we’ll try to come up with a good compromise,” Stedman said.

Both Dunleavy’s speech and Senate majority response were broadcast live on Gavel Alaska.

Among the portions of Dunleavy’s speech getting the most bipartisan applause was his pledge to declare war on fentanyl by introducing legislation to increase the penalty for people making sales of the drug that result in death.

”Right now, under current law, this act can only be charged as manslaughter with a maximum sentence of just 20 years,” he said. “Under my legislation, we’ll increase this penalty to second-degree murder with a sentence of up to 99 years. These people deserve nothing less.”

Dunleavy also pledged to support treatment efforts that “will cost money,” asserting the state’s improved financial situation compared to four years ago will allow more such programs. Among other such health care proposals getting bipartisan approval was extending assistance to new mothers.

“We are asking for funding to expand postpartum Medicaid coverage from 60 days to 12 months to ensure that moms and their children get off to a healthy start in life,” he said. “This initiative will also fund recruitment and retention of the health care professionals we need to fill the 5,000 jobs that will be required over the next 10 years.”

The governor also honored several “Resilient Alaskans” during the speech for “their impactful work for Alaska.”

Among them was Katie Botz, a Juneau school bus driver whose advocacy on behalf of victims of violent crime has made her a familiar figure to many lawmakers at the Capitol. Among other advocacy efforts, she testified during last year’s legislative session about her attempt over many years to overcome the trauma of being a rape victim at the age of 12.

She is also deaf and has been an advocate for the hearing impaired, including responding online to Dunleavy’s urging people to wear face masks at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 by telling commenters favoring a mandate it “excludes those who are deaf and hard of hearing in our society.”

Dunleavy singled out her advocacy for reforming the state’s consent law, which previously required victims to demonstrate they physically resisted assailants, also giving credit to a handful of lawmakers from both parties including state Sen. Jesse Kiehl of Juneau for getting it through the Legislature late during last year’s session.

“In spite of the pain it brought her, Katie raised her voice,” Dunleavy said. “Katie believed that speaking up would help keep others from experiencing what she’s gone through, and that speaking up would ensure that justice would be served on those who victimize others.”

“In the end, we almost let her down when the passage of that bill was in jeopardy. Thankfully, we didn’t. … Katie, I’m here to let you know that you did make a difference. You demonstrated that one person can in fact make a difference and I want to thank you for not giving up.”

Botz, in an interview after Dunleavy’s address, said she was speechless when she was told several days ago about the plan to honor her because “I wasn’t expecting anything like this.”

Botz said that while the governor was talking about her, her thoughts immediately focused on the victims she was advocating for.

“My mind was going to all of the victims of sexual assaults,” she said. “It’s not about me. It’s about the victims and their struggles.”

Other residents honored include Heidi Lieb-Williams of Anchorage, chair of the Governor’s Council for Disabilities and Special Education; Daisy Lockwood Katcheak, city administrator of Stebbins, who played a key local administrative role in recovery efforts following Typhoon Merbok; and Sergeant Carlos “Julian” Navarro, village public safety officer in Golovin for the past 13 years also involved in the typhoon recovery and other emergency service efforts.

Also named as honorees are Elijah Moses, 2, and Francine Jo, who is 3 months old, the children of independent Rep. Josiah Patkotak of Utqiagvik and his wife Flora, in what the governor called a symbolic representation about “taking action today against what it will mean tomorrow.” The youths were named in place of 9-month-old twins of a Juneau couple originally selected who requested on Monday to be removed as honorees.

Dunleavy’s speech followed two demonstrations during the day, both on issues he and legislators subsequently discussed.

The first during the noon hours was an annual rally to protest abortion, featuring an opening prayer for the dozens of people attending and several Republican state lawmakers, with the governor previously stating he intends to propose limiting abortion access in Alaska by introducing an amendment to the state Constitution’s privacy clause.

State Sen. President Gary Stevens, a Kodiak Republican, said during the leadership’s response one of the things he wished the governor discussed more was specifics about properly funding education.

“I don’t think we heard much specificity about how he would solve the problem,” he said.

The second demonstration — with a much larger crowd, an opening acknowledgement of being on Tlingit land and mostly Democratic politicians — was by educators seeking an increase to the per-student funding formula that’s remained flat for several years, with the governor calling for another year of flat funding in his budget for next year.

Dunleavy, in remarks at the end of the speech not included in his preliminary drift, addressed the abortion issue by reiterating his campaign line of wanting “to make Alaska the most pro-life state in the country.”

“Like many of you I happen to like people and we happen to need more people in Alaska, not less,” he said.

State Sen. Elvira Gray-Jackson, an Anchorage Democrat, said after the speech she opposes an amendment restricting abortion rights, but Stevens said “we hope to at least have a hearing on what the governor proposes.”

Contact Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com

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