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New challenges, opportunities for Alaska as Gov. Bill Walker takes office

  • Author: Pat Forgey
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published December 1, 2014

JUNEAU -- Hinting at difficult times ahead, Gov. Bill Walker talked of tough times in Alaska's past and how his family, other Alaska families and the state as a whole survived and prospered.

"My family's story is Alaska's story," Walker told a packed Centennial Hall in Juneau where he was sworn in as governor Monday under spectacular blue skies.

The rare sunny weather, following the year's first snowfall, seemed to contribute to a sense of optimism in the room.

The mood was boosted by one of Juneau's own, Democratic Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, half of the "unity ticket" that made the Walker governorship a reality.

Mallott's Tlingit heritage flavored the ceremony as well, including the clan regalia he wore for his swearing-in and the drumming of Yakutat's Mt. St. Elias Dancers enlivening the room.

The invocation for the ceremony was provided by Bill and Donna Walker's home church pastor, Steve Holsinger of Anchorage's Faith Christian Community.

But despite the inaugural optimism, the new Walker-Mallott team's challenges are daunting.

That includes deciding how much to draw from savings to balance the budget, a decision that will determine how long those savings will last. And that has to be done without knowing where oil prices and production levels will be in the years ahead.

"We're heading into some lean times," Walker said. He later told reporters that work on the budget will begin in earnest Tuesday.

But in his speech, Walker said his family's story -- which includes his father's service in the Aleutians during World War II, growing up "poorer than poor" in pre-statehood Delta Junction, and surviving the Good Friday earthquake's devastation of Valdez -- shows what Alaskans can accomplish.

His family lost nearly everything in the quake but didn't declare bankruptcy and worked extra jobs to pay back what they owed.

And he remembers the optimism and accomplishment of Alaska winning statehood.

"I knew it was important because we went to the A&W root beer stand and it wasn't anybody's birthday," Walker said.

One of the reasons for optimism, he said, was that statehood gave Alaska the ability to develop its resources.

But even with oil prices down, Walker said, he is committed to getting the state's energy to Alaskans as well.

"We don't have a resource problem in Alaska, we have a distribution problem," he said

Walker provided few clues about big budget questions, other than the warnings of "lean" years, but said he'd begin working on the preliminary budget provided by outgoing Gov. Sean Parnell before he submits his own budget by Dec. 15.

Among the first actions of the new administration, Walker said, will be to accept the federal money to expand Medicaid that the Parnell administration rejected.

That wasn't a surprise to those in the Centennial Hall crowd who had heard Walker campaign, but it was well received.

That could bring better medical care to as many as 40,000 Alaskans, Walker said, though Bill Streuer, Parnell's commissioner of health and social services, has disputed that number.

Walker's new HSS commissioner, Valerie Davidson, said she didn't know yet how long that process would take.

Walker also promised a more "open and transparent" administration, possibly taking a dig at the former governor when he said he'd "work to restore some of the faith and trust that has been lost."

Also attending the ceremony were Parnell and his wife, Sandy, who got an ovation from the Juneau audience when they were introduced. Walker praised Parnell for the way he handled the transition.

"You've made it absolutely as smooth as possible," he said.

Alaska U.S. Sen.-elect Dan Sullivan also attended, as did former Gov. Bill Sheffield and former Lt. Gov. Stephen McAlpine, though none spoke, and the audience was peppered with numerous other current and former legislators and officials.

Walker reached out to those who complain of federal overreach with his own experience.

He said he was 12 years old when he won the janitorial contract with the U.S. Post Office in Valdez. But a postal inspector later came to Valdez and told the young Walker that a 12-year-old couldn't hold a federal contract.

The future lawyer pointed out there was no such restriction in the contract language but lost the janitorial contract anyway.

"And that became my first run-in with the federal government," Walker said.

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