JUNEAU — Gov. Mike Dunleavy said he wanted to make Alaska “the most pro-life state in the entire country” during his annual address to the Legislature on Monday evening, marking the Republican governor’s second term in office.
“We need more people in Alaska, not less,” Dunleavy said, but his speech lacked details on how he would make Alaska, where access to abortion is protected under the state constitution, more “pro-life.”
An anti-abortion rally held earlier in the day drew a sparse crowd, where Chris Kurka, a former Republican legislator and director of Alaska Right to Life, said “it’s a time to seize the day.”
Dunleavy has previously advocated for putting forward a constitutional amendment that would ask Alaskans to decide whether abortion-access remains protected. Such a bill has already been introduced by Sen. Shelly Hughes, a Palmer Republican who is in the minority. Dunleavy has not publicly backed Hughes’ bill.
Senate leadership members said they would be open to hearing abortion-related proposals but did not commit to advancing such a measure, which would require approval from Alaska voters.
Still, members of the bipartisan Senate caucus said they were impressed with Dunleavy’s State of the State address, which they said showed a willingness to work with lawmakers, even as they awaited more specific details about Dunleavy’s policy ideas.
“The devil’s in the details,” said Sen. Bill Wielechowski, an Anchorage Democrat, adding that he hoped for proposals to deal with K-12 education costs, child care availability, affordable housing and a backlog in federal SNAP benefits.
“I think there’s been a real sea change in the governor,” said Senate President Gary Stevens, a Kodiak Republican. “In my estimation, the governor is more comfortable with being governor.”
Dunleavy’s speech focused on what he called a need for the state to go “on the offense” against the federal government for the rights to develop its resources, including “low and no carbon energy.”
“In many respects we’ve been stereotyped as a land of fish and igloos, frigid temperatures, and fat bears,” Dunleavy said. “These perceptions, misconceptions and stereotypes can do real harm to Alaska and its future.”
Dunleavy said lawmakers “have an obligation to fight back against this elitist attitude” of turning Alaska into “a billionaires’ playground to set up for glamping for a couple weeks and then take off for Davos in private jets.”
House Speaker Cathy Tilton, a Wasilla Republican, said Dunleavy’s speech brought to the fore issues that are “important to all Alaskans,” including reducing crime, resource development, and federal overreach.
“I think everybody can agree that there are places where the federal government has stepped over the people of the state of Alaska,” Tilton said.
The governor’s other proposals included increasing sentencing minimums for drug dealers; increasing postpartum Medicaid coverage from 60 days to 12 months; expanding the state defense force; and advancing policies related to food security.
Sen. Donny Olson, a Golovin Democrat, said Dunleavy “is much more in touch with reality now than he was back then,” referring to Dunleavy’s first term and remarking on the governor’s reduced focus on cutting state services and newfound willingness to celebrate investments in education, the marine highway system and other state services.
“I think he is 100% committed to working with us and that makes me very pleased,” said Anchorage Democrat Sen. Elvi Gray-Jackson.
House Minority Leader Calvin Schrage, an Anchorage independent, said he was “encouraged” by the tone of Dunleavy’s remarks, including by policies related to education and “family planning.”
Dunleavy’s speech came an hour after a few hundred people gathered on the Capitol steps in Juneau to rally for increased K-12 education funding — a topic Dunleavy did not mention in his speech, despite vocal support from some legislators for boosting the formula used to calculate school funding.
“You can’t talk about the state of the state tonight without talking about the state of schools,” Tom Klaameyer, president of the National Education Association-Alaska, told rally-goers to loud applause.
The governor made only a brief mention of education, touting the passage last year of a reading intervention bill known as the Alaska Reads Act. The bill passed narrowly through the House on the last day of the legislative session over concerns that a 0.5% increase to the per student funding formula — the Base Student Allocation — was insufficient.
“If we’re successful at our job, if we do what we’re here to do, we’re going to enact policies that reduce the cost of living in Alaska and make it affordable to raise a family and have children,” Dunleavy said.