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Where's Walker? Governor keeps his distance from legislative budget fight

  • Author: Nathaniel Herz
  • Updated: March 6, 2017
  • Published March 5, 2017

JUNEAU — As Alaska lawmakers advance their proposals to fix the state's $3 billion deficit, one loud voice from previous budget debates is conspicuously absent: Gov. Bill Walker's.

Walker, in his first two years in office, issued lawmakers a steady stream of prepared statements, press-conference suggestions and even threatening letters warning of the consequences of putting off a budget fix.

Gov. Bill Walker, with Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott behind him, holds a news conference on the budget in 2016. (Nathaniel Herz / Alaska Dispatch News)

Now in his third year, with both legislative chambers showing new resolve to tackle the problem, the state's chief executive has fallen silent.

"I'm trying to think of the last time I remember reading anything about him in the paper," said Anchorage Democratic Rep. Chris Tuck, the majority leader.

"I saw him at the State of the State," said Anchorage Republican Rep. Lance Pruitt, referring to Walker's annual address to lawmakers, in January.

"I think he's communicating by Twitter," quipped Rep. Charisse Millett, R-Anchorage, the minority leader.

Reps. Mike Chenault and Charisse Millett in the Capitol in January. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

The change, Walker said in an interview, reflects a different strategy amid greater public pressure on the Legislature — not a shift in focus or a new agenda. He said he's taking a "team approach" with lawmakers, who now appear willing to tackle the state's budget problem without needling from the executive branch.

"There's some momentum in both the House and the Senate," Walker said. "We're fully engaged — just in a different role."

Walker and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, in an opinion piece published Saturday on the Alaska Dispatch News website, said it was the Legislature's turn to act.

"After two years of public outreach and input, this difficult debate now rests with our legislators," they wrote. They also said the House and Senate are now debating bills "to address this historic challenge. As long as the measures resolve the deficit and propel the state's economy into the future, they wrote, they would accept the outcome.

Walker, a Republican-turned-independent, had never worked professionally in the Capitol when he was elected in 2014, beating the incumbent Republican governor, Sean Parnell — whose politics aligned with GOP legislative leaders.

In his first two years in office, Walker faced periodic criticism from those same legislative leaders, who argued that the new governor, by making demands and ultimatums, wasn't respecting the boundaries between the two branches of government.

When the Legislature last year seemed to be balking at Walker's deficit-reduction proposals, for example, he drafted a letter to all 60 lawmakers suggesting that if they didn't pass a broad-based tax, he would call them back for a special session — a threat he ultimately carried out.

He also incensed legislative leaders when he announced in an interview with a reporter — rather than privately — that he planned to veto lawmakers' proposed purchase of their downtown Anchorage office building.

And in 2015, Walker called a news conference to denounce a bill from the House speaker at the time, Nikiski Republican Mike Chenault, that would have blocked Walker's plans for the state's natural gas pipeline project. Walker, before an audience of reporters, memorably brandished an annotated copy of the legislation and asked: "Are you kidding me?"

"There has had to be some recovery from resentment of the early bomb-dropping," Sen. Peter Micciche, the Republican majority leader from Soldotna, said in an interview.

Walker's approach didn't get him very far last year, when he pressured lawmakers to adopt a package of nine deficit-reduction measures — from a new income tax to a restructuring of the Alaska Permanent Fund, the $57 billion account that pays residents' dividend checks.

Just one of the measures, a bill to increase oil taxes and reduce oil companies' cash subsidies, was approved.

But Walker and his allies aren't convinced that a more accommodating approach to legislative leaders — many of whom were opposed to deficit-reduction measures like taxes — would have produced a different outcome.

And, they argue, the governor's calls for budget reforms raised the profile of the state's financial problems, spurring voters to dispatch several incumbent lawmakers into other careers.

In the November election, the House flipped from Republican control and is now led by a coalition made up largely of Democrats — and whose organizing principle is fixing the state's deficit.

"The election in 2016 was in no small part a message from the public: 'We don't know what the answer is, but we know we have a problem and we're electing you to fix it,'" said Bruce Botelho, who served as Walker's transition coordinator. Walker, Botelho added, "has done his part in demanding that the state have this conversation, and particularly its elected leadership."

Both legislative chambers are now advancing bills to restructure the Permanent Fund, which most lawmakers describe as the single biggest potential revenue source to reduce the deficit. House leaders have also introduced income tax legislation.

Walker administration officials are still appearing at hearings, and he and top deputies are still meeting with lawmakers and giving opinions on individual deficit-reduction proposals.

But the approach is collaborative, according to officials and legislators, unlike in the past two years in which Walker publicly pressured the Legislature to support his agenda. The governor has held just one news conference this year, announcing an anti-addiction initiative, while he's kept up his membership in the Legislature's bowling league.

Alaska Gov. Bill Walker handles Iditarod musher John Baker’s second sled as the dog team makes the turn from Fourth Avenue onto Cordova Street during the ceremonial start of the 2017 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Anchorage on Saturday, March 4, 2017. In Walker’s sled is his grandson Porter and in Baker’s sled is IditaRider Andrea Nasuayaaq Ahyakak. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

"If we're going to solve the problem, we're going to solve it in a conversation or over coffee," said Scott Kendall, Walker's chief of staff. "We're not going to solve it by sending dueling press releases."

Legislative leaders who once accused Walker of meddling now describe him in warmer terms.

"His restraint has not gone unnoticed, and it is appreciated," Senate President Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, said in an email, adding that Walker had previously "interjected himself" into the Legislature's business.

Kelly's colleague in Senate leadership, Micciche, says he now has a "teammate in the governor's mansion."

Critics argue that Walker's new legislative strategy also doubles as shrewd political calculus. Walker's term expires in less than two years, and Rep. Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage, suggested that the governor, by taking a lower public profile, might be trying to avoid some of the political fallout if lawmakers approve proposals like new taxes or smaller Permanent Fund dividends.

"He's going to allow the Legislature to take some of the heat," Pruitt said.

Walker denied that, pointing out that less than nine months ago, he vetoed half of the money set aside for dividends.

"I'll continue to make decisions that are difficult decisions if they're necessary," he said.

Kendall, Walker's chief of staff, said people should expect to hear more from the administration before the end of the legislative session — particularly if it appears lawmakers aren't on pace to finish their work within their 90-day limit.

"At some point," Kendall said, "we're going to chime in."

Late Friday afternoon, as if on cue, they announced a news conference for Monday.

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