JUNEAU — Gov. Bill Walker called on Alaskans to pull together, and not panic, as the state faces multibillion-dollar budget deficits amid a fall in oil prices.
Walker struck a hopeful tone in his first State of the State address on Wednesday night, saying that he sees the fiscal situation not as a crisis but as an opportunity to make impactful changes and challenge traditional ways of operating.
“Now is not the time to sound the alarm, my fellow Alaskans. Now is the time to pull together, to make a plan, sharpen our focus and get to work,” he said.
“We have the tools. We have the ingenuity. We have the team. And we will work a way out and build an even stronger Alaska,” Walker said to applause.
The speech was delivered before a joint session of the Legislature and televised statewide.
Walker, in a dark suit and red tie, did not get into many specifics on the budget. He plans a separate speech devoted to the topic on Thursday.
However, he said he would protect education funding “and insulate it from the state’s fiscal situation to the greatest extent possible.”
“We will continue to invest in education as it is one of the highest priorities of this state, but not at the rate we could have when oil was over $100 per barrel,” he said. Tuesday’s price for North Slope oil was about $47 per barrel.
He called on teachers to be resourceful and efficient and said he would do all he could to provide for the needs of schools. “Public education is a constitutionally mandated responsibility,” Walker said. “I have not, and I will not, forget that.”
In an interview earlier this week, Walker said nothing would be off the table as the state cuts spending.
Walker in his speech also spoke about the need for affordable energy and pledged to move forward with a major liquefied natural gas project. He reiterated his desire to expand Medicaid coverage and called for an end to the epidemics of rape, sexual assault and domestic violence in the state. Walker’s predecessor, Republican Sean Parnell, sought to shine a light on that issue with the “Choose Respect” campaign.
He said his attorney general would announce a special investigator on Thursday to look into allegations of sexual assault and other misconduct within the Alaska National Guard.
Walker said it’s time to complete the work that lawmakers began on the gas line. Under his administration, he said the state will begin building a gas line to tidewater.
Senate President Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, said lawmakers have heard that from other governors. But he said members of the Republican-led majority also want to see a gas line built and built as soon as possible.
Some lawmakers have been nervous about Walker’s intentions with the gas line since he shook up the board of a state corporation expected to play a key role in the project. The gas line has long been hoped for in Alaska as a way to provide gas to Alaskans, create jobs and shore up revenues in a state heavily reliant upon oil. A number of lawmakers see that project — if it indeed gets built — as the next best source for new revenues.
The current timeline for the project has a final investment decision around 2019. Walker’s current term expires in late 2018.
Leaders of the Republican-led House and Senate majorities lamented the lack of specifics in the speech. Senate Majority Leader John Coghill, R-North Pole, said the speech sounded a lot like campaign rhetoric.