Dunleavy renews push for legal gambling and calls for Alaska self-sufficiency in first-ever remote State of the State speech

JUNEAU — Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy pushed the idea of Alaska self-sufficiency in his third annual State of the State address, proposing new measures to boost local farming, pharmaceuticals manufacturing and energy production alongside familiar ideas from his first and second speeches to the state.

“He wants to make other opportunities available, take advantage of our real permanent fund in Alaska, which is our resources,” said Rep. Mike Prax, R-North Pole, praising the speech.

Dunleavy delivered his speech by video from Anchorage as state lawmakers watched from their offices at the Alaska State Capitol in Juneau. The speech was prerecorded, said deputy communications director Jeff Turner.

Dunleavy said Alaska is dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic successfully, but pandemic-driven quarantines and shutdowns have “demonstrated to me that we have to examine our own vulnerabilities and reevaluate our dependence upon others.”

To that end, Dunleavy said he will seek to open more land to farming and try to find ways to develop a pharmaceuticals industry in Alaska. He offered no specifics, and Turner said none were immediately available. He said he will seek to develop Alaska’s renewable energy options while trying to defend the state’s ability to drill for oil and gas.

Dunleavy reiterated that he does not want Alaska to be treated like a national park, a message Alaska politicians have used since statehood. President Joe Biden this week issued executive orders that pause oil and gas leasing on federal land.

Dunleavy said he has asked the Legislature for $4 million “to defend Alaska’s statehood and sovereignty against the encroachment of an overreaching federal government.”

Sen. Tom Begich, an Anchorage Democrat and Senate minority leader, called the request a mistake, and one that seems “more about posturing than producing” results.

“He’s going to put $4 million into lawsuits against federal overreach, but that’s what we spend on pre-kindergarten,” Begich said.

The governor reiterated his support for a series of constitutional amendments intended to constrain future state spending and taxation. He also reinforced his request that the Legislature approve $5,000 in Permanent Fund dividend payments this year to help Alaskans suffering from the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some lawmakers support that idea, but others say it doesn’t make fiscal sense because it would violate limits on sustainable spending from the Permanent Fund, reducing the amount of money for dividends and services in the future.

“It’s a little like going 110 in a 55,” said Rep. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage, referring to highway speed limits.

Dunleavy said he will reintroduce a bill to legalize “gaming” in Alaska, but Turner was unable to provide immediate details. Legislators, watching in Juneau, also said they were unsure whether the governor was referring to a legalized lottery proposed last year or something broader.

Begich said he was disappointed the governor didn’t unveil a fiscal plan.

“I honestly believe we’ve gambled too many times on our future, and that’s not the answer,” he said.

The governor proposed a handful of education-related initiatives, saying he will form a “temporary ‘Governor’s Office of Reading Instruction’” to ensure education-related COVID-19 relief funding is targeted at improving students’ reading skills.

The governor also said he will introduce legislation that would increase funding for homeschooling programs operated by local school districts. He also said he has directed the state Department of Education and Early Development to create summer camps “to boost the reading, math, and coding skills of our students, and to create an apprenticeship program that will allow high schoolers to earn credit while working for local businesses.”

“I think there’s more to the governor’s speech than just aspirations,” said Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, who praised the governor and pleged to hold the governor’s “feet to the fire” on fulfilling his promises.

Legislative reference librarian Jennifer Fletcher said she is aware of no other case when a governor delivered the annual address remotely instead of in a joint session of the Legislature.

In a recorded response, Claman thanked the governor for recording the speech from Anchorage, “so that we can all stay safe in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“It was very different. Normally, it’s a very crowded room with all of his staff, and it’s exciting,” said Senate President Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna.

“It was different on a screen,” said Micciche, who watched it from his office with two aides.

James Brooks

Juneau-based James Brooks covers state government, the Alaska Legislature and general assignments for the Daily News. He previously reported and edited for the Juneau Empire, Kodiak Daily Mirror and Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.