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Alaska Gov. Bill Walker reflects on rocky tenure, his legacy

November 23, 2018
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In this Nov. 13, 2018 photo, Alaska Gov. Bill Walker poses in his office at the state Capitol in Juneau, Alaska. Walker, an independent, leaves office Dec. 3, 2018, and will be succeeded by Republican Gov.-elect Mike Dunleavy. (AP Photo/Becky Bohrer)

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Alaska Gov. Bill Walker laments the lack of political courage he says some lawmakers showed during the fiscal crisis that marked his term in office and stands by his decision during that time to cap the check Alaska residents receive from the state’s oil-wealth fund.

He labels as irresponsible a call from Republican Gov.-elect Mike Dunleavy for a full payout from the fund and back payments for the three years the check was reduced.

And in recent interviews with The Associated Press, Walker said he worries some of his key initiatives — such as expanding Medicaid to cover more lower-income residents and working to advance a major liquefied natural gas project — will be undone after he leaves office Dec. 3.

It was a rocky four years for Walker, marked by rising crime rates, legislative gridlock and a precipitous fall in oil prices that created a massive budget deficit and sent Alaska into a recession.

While Walker said progress was being made, his re-election bid was complicated with Democrat Mark Begich in the race. Walker, a Republican-turned-independent, was elected in 2014 with Democratic support. He and Begich were seen as competing for the same votes.

He said they discussed the option of one of them dropping out. But ultimately, it was Walker who quit, weeks before the election, after his close friend and lieutenant governor, Byron Mallott, resigned over what Walker described as an inappropriate overture to a woman. Walker said he could not win and residents deserved a competitive race. He offered qualified support for Begich.

To some, Walker was a cool-headed leader who was dealt a bad hand and did what he thought was best for Alaska. For others, he was the guy who stole their dividend check.

The check, paid annually with earnings from the Alaska Permanent Fund, was a flashpoint in the race, said state Sen. Bill Wielechowski, a Democrat who unsuccessfully sued Walker for cutting the amount available for the checks roughly in half in 2016. Walker said he did so, amid legislative gridlock over the deficit, to preserve the dividend into the future. Legislators since have not followed the formula in law for calculating the checks.

“He took some stands which he believed in, which I think ultimately probably cost him the election,” Wielechowski said.

Oil prices, while volatile, have rebounded from the depths they hit in early 2016. And lawmakers, after blowing through billions of dollars in savings fighting over how to tackle the deficit, this year started using permanent fund earnings to prop up the budget. That sets up a political fight over the future of the dividend, also paid with fund earnings.

Walker said the state faces a choice after a period of cuts that included closing facilities and laying off employees.

“Are we just going to hold on by our fingernails, or are we going to grow? And you don’t grow by continuing to reduce,” he said.

In some areas, such as public safety, cuts went too far and money was added back, he said. Walker would like to see more money go to deferred maintenance and infrastructure projects but said new revenues are needed.

Dunleavy has said he wants to reduce spending and limit the growth of government. He said government must be managed better before there is talk of new taxes.

He said no change should be made to the dividend program without a vote of the people. He saw his proposal for paying a full dividend and paying residents the amount they missed out on when the checks were capped as a way to help restore trust in state government.

Walker acknowledges cutting the dividend check hurt residents who depend on it. But he noted tax proposals he offered as part of what he considered a more balanced fiscal plan failed.

Walker first ran for governor in 2010, as a Republican, focused on a gas line to bring North Slope gas to market. He lost the primary to then-Gov. Sean Parnell.

In 2014, Walker skipped the primary and mounted an outsider run, setting up a race between him, Parnell and the Democratic nominee, Mallott. He and Mallott decided to join forces and created what became known as the “unity ticket.” As part of the deal, blessed by Democrats, Walker changed his party affiliation from Republican to undeclared.

Walker hasn’t said much about what Mallott did, which he said is in keeping with the wishes of the woman who did not want to be publicly identified. Walker said the facts were run past the attorney general’s office and it was determined that no crime occurred. Mallott apologized.

Walker said he still speaks with Mallott regularly.

Outgoing Democratic Rep. Les Gara said he did not always agree with Walker but considered him forthright. “You can’t deny that he was an honest person trying to do what he felt was right,” he said.

It wasn’t “rocket science” to figure out that a race with three major candidates was trouble for Begich and Walker, he said: “It was not a good situation.”

Outgoing Republican Rep. Mike Chenault said he liked Walker personally and had him on his legislative bowling team. But he said Walker stumbled, particularly early in his term, in working with legislators.

“I don’t think that the administration probably worked with the Legislature as good as they could in order to have a positive outcome on a lot of the issues that they tackled,” he said. “But I guess that’s for the historians to decide that.”

Walker, 67, said he will miss being governor. He did not identify the legislators he said privately agreed with positions he took but said they couldn’t support him publicly for fear of losing re-election.

He’s not yet sure what’s next, except for building some cabins for his family. His father had a construction business, and Walker, a lawyer by training, often refers to himself as a carpenter for the skill he learned at his side. He said he finds the work therapeutic.

“I can’t imagine I’ll sort of fade into the horizon some place,” he said.

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