JUNEAU -- Gov. Sarah Palin announced in her State of the State Speech on Thursday night that she wants to freeze all state hiring except for public safety but also pursue ambitious projects like a road to Nome.
Palin, speaking in the state House chambers, said that next month she will introduce a bill for "facilitating" an in-state natural gas pipeline. She said the goal is to have such a project completed in five years, carrying 460 million cubic feet of gas a day.
Palin acknowledged that the state is facing a potential budget deficit of more than a billion dollars as a result of the drop in oil prices. She didn't propose specific cuts to government programs but said she wants to freeze state hiring as well as restrict "non-essential purchases." She didn't elaborate on what those are.
It's Palin's first State of the State since her run for vice president, and she talked some about her time on the campaign trail. The governor said she learned about fighting against long odds, protecting family and putting "Country First," referring to John McCain's campaign motto, "even when voters put you second."
Palin also seemed to allude to fallout from her run for national office.
"And Alaska, as a statewide family, we've got to fight for each other, not against, and not let external, sensationalized distractions out there on the periphery draw us off course," she said.
Palin said that, while it will take years, there is progress toward building a natural gas pipeline to the Lower 48.
"Unfortunately, some, they only focus on potential obstacles when they discuss projects like the gas line: the giants in the land preventing us from gathering fruit," she said.
Palin said other development is also needed for the state, surprising some legislators by advocating for major road projects.
"We're commissioning preliminary work on a road to Umiat and pursuing a road to Nome," Palin said.
Umiat is on the North Slope about 110 miles southwest of Prudhoe Bay where the Dalton Highway ends. Oil companies are exploring the development potential of natural gas pools in the area.
There's been discussion of building a road from Fairbanks to Nome, a distance of about 526 miles. The idea is to open up the country for economic development, but such a massive project would be very expensive. The governor's spokesman, Bill McAllister, demurred after the speech when asked what Palin had in mind.
"I'm going to let the speech speak for itself," he said.
Some legislators, like Fairbanks Republican Rep. Mike Kelly, have been talking up the project and will be thrilled to have Palin include it in the State of the State. But Senate Majority Leader Johnny Ellis, an Anchorage Democrat, was skeptical given the state's plummet in oil income.
"I'm not convinced it is the highest and best use of our limited income right now," he said.
Ellis said he was pleased that the governor brought up the importance of early screening for children with disabilities. But he said nearly a thousand children are awaiting funding for developmental disability services.
The state House Speaker, Nikiski Republican Sen. Mike Chenault, said he liked hearing that Palin will introduce a bill to help an in-state natural gas pipeline, something that's been a priority for many legislators.
"I will certainly be interested to see what it looks it," Chenault said.
Palin has previously said she's not enthusiastic about the state helping pay for the in-state pipeline but wants to work with private business to make it happen. She hasn't laid out a plan, but that could change with the bill she said she would introduce next month.
Chenault said a state hiring freeze probably won't save much money but that it's good to see Palin work on containing costs. But Anchorage Democratic Rep. Mike Doogan said such broad-brush responses as a state government hiring freeze never seem to work in practice.
Senate President Gary Stevens, a Republican from Kodiak, said a hiring freeze for state government is a start.
"Often you wind up with some gaps and you need more people in certain areas. But I think that's the way to begin and I applaud the governor for making that first move," he said.
Stevens called it a great evening and said Palin's speech showed that she's focused on the state, despite her vice presidential run and national profile. "I think that if there was any doubt in anyone's mind it's clear that the governor is back in town," he said.
Doogan seemed less impressed. "Long on phrases, short on content, which is typical in these speeches," he said.
Palin started the speech saying that she's praying for the success of President Obama, who she criticized on the campaign trail.
"His work is cut out for him, but if President Obama governs with the skill, grace and greatness of which he is capable, Alaska's going to be just fine," Palin said.
Her speech seemed more lyrical than in her past State of the State's, referring to the state's challenges with phrases like "we climb Denali, we forge the river, we rebuild a stronger foundation on higher ground."
Palin's staff said she largely wrote the final draft herself, with input on preliminary versions from state officials and outside "friendlies" they would not name.
Palin said Alaska is in a better position than other states, having put billions of dollars in savings last year when oil prices were high.
She talked about health care reform. But rather than proposing sweeping changes in the state's system, she spoke of adjustments to children' health insurance, autism screening, daily school physical education and personal responsibility for exercise and healthy habits.
"Many of us could use a little more time in our great outdoors, and when you live in the Great Land, there's no excuse," Palin said.
She reiterated her goal of generating 50 percent of power from renewable sources by 2025. She didn't propose specific projects but talked about introducing a bill to create a single, joint, utility corporation for the entire Railbelt. That will lead to fewer fractured energy efforts among the utilities, she said.
Alaskan unity and cooperation was a major theme. She twice invoked former Gov. Wally Hickel, who supported her during the governor's race but with whom she's since had disagreement over natural gas pipeline issues.
"Governor Wally Hickel said he feared more than any economic depression -- a depression of the spirit. Alaska, it's time we revive the optimistic, pioneering spirit that our founding mothers and fathers birthed in the state Constitution," Palin said.