On Monday afternoon, Alaska’s 11th governor officially took office. By Gov. Bill Walker’s own reckoning, the time between Election Day Nov. 4 and his inauguration had been a whirlwind. “I never thought I’d be sitting where I’m sitting,” he told reporters Monday afternoon at his first press conference since taking the oath of office. Even though Gov. Walker and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott have been in office for less than a day, the administration’s statements on day one contained some hopeful signs for Alaska — even as the state’s biggest challenges still await.
Gov. Walker bid a cordial goodbye to outgoing Gov. Sean Parnell at the inauguration ceremony in Juneau — and wasted no time in setting markers for how his administration would differ in a significant way from that of his predecessor — starting with accepting an expansion of Medicaid. “Up to 40,000 of our friends, family members, neighbors and coworkers have gone too long without preventive care,” Gov. Walker told the inauguration audience. “We must fix that.”
Gov. Parnell, saying he feared the federal government would eventually unload costs on the state, declined to expand Medicaid during his tenure despite the tens of thousands of Alaskans who fell into the gap between Medicaid recipients and those able to afford plans on the state health care exchange. Gov. Walker said he plans to begin the process to accept Medicaid expansion immediately.
In areas where he felt Gov. Parnell and his administration had made better progress, Gov. Walker signaled willingness to continue the work that the office’s previous occupants began, as with steps toward a full-diameter natural gas pipeline. “Alaska doesn’t have a resource problem,” the governor said, “It has a distribution problem.” That statement garnered the strongest applause of any at the inauguration. It’s true: Alaska, rich in size and commodity abundance, has never had an issue with a lack of resources. The problems arise in trying to develop those resources and move them to market in a cost-effective way. Gov. Walker has so far suggested the state should take more ownership and development responsibility for those resources. If he can manage a path to make that happen economically for the state and its people, it will be a bold step forward for Alaska. If that vision doesn’t bear out, creating a path to long-term prosperity for the state will be far more challenging for Gov. Walker.
The new governor acknowledged that challenge in his inaugural speech, drawing parallels between challenges that faced his family and the state. Recalling lean times, he spoke of putting up with leaky roofs as a child and fetching wood in windy winter conditions. The implication was clear: like Gov. Walker and his family, Alaska may well be in for hard financial times in coming years. The state’s prospects are diminishing in the decline of oil wealth that has been the state’s economic engine for decades. How long that economic dip lasts — and how deep it falls — will have much to do with the success or failure of Gov. Walker’s vision for Alaska.
— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Dec. 1