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Some big Alaska problems barely touched as Walker enters the final year of his term

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: December 20, 2017
  • Published December 19, 2017

Gov. Bill Walker speaks at a press conference about the state’s liquefied natural gas joint development agreement with China on Nov. 21, 2017. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Gov. Bill Walker seems to have woken up with re-election a year away and realized, like a student nearing the end of the term, that he doesn't have enough accomplishments to his name to get a good grade.

At times, it seemed Walker never really expected to get elected when he jumped into the race against Gov. Sean Parnell in the spring of 2013. His campaign was a family affair and his message was all about building a gas line from the North Slope.

Walker's only previous political experience was as a Valdez City Council member and mayor — ending in 1980. His lack of experience has been his biggest handicap.

Politicians commonly are advised to concentrate on just a few major priorities to achieve memorable results. It's easy to get distracted and let political power become diluted.

But Walker may have taken the point too far.

Walker has been all about the gas line, and the gas line remains his one big bet. Conveniently, we won't find out if that bet will come in until the month after next year's general election.

China didn't agree to invest in the deal signed last month. The investment decision would come in December 2018. An official from Sinopec, Alaska's business partner in China, told The New York Times the deal was "a letter of intent for future cooperation, not a contract."

Otherwise, Walker's first term was consumed by the state's fiscal gap. He deserves credit for political courage in that fight, but he showed more gumption than skill. The gap won.

The Alaska Legislature is mostly to blame, especially the Senate, which never offered a balanced spending plan. But Walker's incomprehensible initial proposal wasted precious time, and his shaky relations with legislators kept him from improvising something that would pass.

Last week he released an unbalanced plan and tried to change the subject.

In the fourth year of his term, we see the governor belatedly weighing in on Alaskans' other critical concerns: crime, health care, climate change and economic development. But, to continue the school metaphor, this all seems like last-minute cramming.

I've already written about the botched special session on crime. Walker signed a sentencing bill that his own lawyers warned was so flawed that it would tie up the courts in needless litigation.

By adding the crime bill to a session intended to deal with revenues, Walker doomed the last real chance for the fiscal discussion. His new budget would spend more on law enforcement, but without revenues to match.

Walker is late and ineffective on health care cost.

On health coverage, he did well, expanding Medicaid and propping up the individual health insurance market. But Walker has done nothing to address the cost of care, which is the underlying problem for Alaskans.

The governor's office lacks the technical horsepower for this work. When he took over, Walker cut staff, leaving himself without the policy aides who could have developed solutions.

The administration is pursuing a complex and controversial idea for how to buy insurance for government employees, but easier fixes that would help the rest of us have gone undone. State law and regulation still prevent cost containment solutions common in other states.

Walker gave the climate change issue to Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott. With another winter melting around us, the warming weather is a deep concern for many Alaskans.

But Mallott's interminable process produced no policies. Last week, the administration formed a team. Even that weak initiative seemed mainly intended to boost the administration's argument to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.

I still scratch my head. Who exactly would be persuaded to open ANWR drilling because of climate change?

But the ANWR push brings Walker back to who he really is as a politician, a disciple of Gov. Walter Hickel's big-project, big-development dreams.

When he announced his run in 2013, Walker told the Valdez Star, "With me as governor, I will make sure the projects we've been looking at will get built."

Oil sold for $85 a barrel at the time, and old-fashioned Alaska politicians could still promise megaprojects — as much as we rue the wasted billions now.

It was Walker's fate, as oil money disappeared, to kill projects he would have preferred to build. He reluctantly canceled boondoggles such as the Susitna-Watana Dam, the Knik Arm Crossing and the Juneau Access Road.

They never had a prayer of being completed — we could have afforded one at most — but the money for planners and engineers kept the dreams alive. For decades, spending on big projects that would never be built made for very, very expensive campaign advertising for Alaska's political incumbents.

Now, with the final exam approaching, Walker has launched a new Arctic road fantasy.

Gov. Sean Parnell did this before the 2010 election as well. He called for a 500-mile road to Nome, projected to cost $1.1 billion to $2.7 billion. We kept spending on that until 2013. You can probably see the plans in a library somewhere.

In 2017, without enough money for state troopers or snowplow operators, Walker inserted $7 million in the state's capital budget to do it again, planning hundreds of miles of roads across the Arctic.

What will we get for the money? There's already a fancy new website. According to the Department of Natural Resources, the project "will focus on developing a shared vision to serve as overarching guidance for scope work and a public engagement strategy."

In other words, no gravel. Alaska can't possibly afford these roads.

But by the time this new megaproject dies, the election will be over and these studies can be filed with all the others.

Bill Walker is a good man, an old-time Alaskan with solid values, unquestionably committed to doing his best for Alaska. That puts him ahead of most politicians who would seek to replace him.

But before this election, he needs to share a credible vision of Alaska without big oil money, not based on dubious megaprojects or a single long-shot bet to have another petroleum boom.

He needs to show he has learned the job.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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