Alaska Gov. Bill Walker has stayed away from public view during the current legislative session, as the House and Senate advance separate deficit-reduction plans. With lawmakers nearing a flexible, 90-day deadline set by a citizens initiative — the state constitution allows them to keep working through 121 days — Walker says he's more concerned about the Legislature's final product and less worried about its timing, even with signs of a deepening standoff.
Walker, who's in his third year of a four-year term, sat down with Alaska Dispatch News in his third-floor Capitol office Monday afternoon to lay out his view of the Legislature's progress and what he thinks is left to do.
Much of the discussion was about the competing deficit-reduction plans offered by the House and Senate. The House's majority coalition — mostly Democrats with a few Republicans and independents — is advancing a proposal to eliminate Alaska's $2.8 billion budget hole with a restructured Permanent Fund and a state income tax.
The Senate's Republican-led majority would fill most of the gap with a restructured fund along with hundreds of millions of dollars of budget cuts but without taxes, leaving a deficit of some $500 million.
The interview has been edited and condensed.
Alaska Dispatch News: What's the outlook from the third floor?
Bill Walker: Well, I see some things moving. I think that they'll probably extend themselves to the full 121 days and I think that's going to be realistic about it. But I'm generally happy with what I'm seeing. At the beginning of the session I said, 'This is the year we need to get it done.' And I still stand by that initial early position, of, 'We need get it all done.'
ADN: Do you feel like a 90-day session at this point was unrealistic, or is it a failure to not get it done in that amount of time?
BW: I wouldn't use the 90 days as a litmus test of failure, necessarily. My focus is what we get done, not when we get it done. My goal is to have it completely finished and I don't have a strong feeling whether it's on Day 90 or Day 120.
ADN: What do you think is going to bring the House and Senate together?
BW: I've been meeting with them separately, throughout the session, pretty much every week. And now we've started meeting together. And I think that's going to be a necessary part of it — to have those discussions collectively, with House and Senate leadership and myself.
ADN: We're hearing from the House and the Senate that each has a complete plan. What's going to be your yardstick for measuring what a complete plan is?
BW: There are some that will say it's a complete plan because you think the price of oil's going to go to $80 (a barrel) next year. In some people's mind, that could be a complete plan. It's not in mine. I believe we're at $50 oil. Does it close the loop at $50 oil is really what I'm looking at.
ADN: Does the Senate's plan do that, currently?
BW: I don't believe it does at $50 oil.
ADN: What do they need to add to that plan for it to satisfy you?
BW: More revenue sources.
ADN: And you're not going to be picky about which?
BW: I'm not. I'm really not. I'm not saying, 'Pick this. Don't pick this.' No. It's a full menu. And it's just math, as far as what brings it to a close.
ADN: Do you have an opinion on the 5 percent cut to schools that the Senate came out with today?
BW: I haven't seen the specifics of what they came out with (on Monday). And I know that the conference committee will be the ultimate arbiter of that, and we'll let that process work.
ADN: Is the House's plan — the plan that's been articulated so far in the House Finance Committee, with the income tax and the Permanent Fund restructure — would you let everyone go home if that passed and became the law of the land?
BW: If that's what they selected of how to close it off and finish it up, I would. But again, I'm not mandating it's got to be any particular type of revenue.
ADN: So, you're not saying that the House is doing this right and the Senate is doing this wrong. But from what you're seeing, the House's plan right now is a complete plan and the Senate's is not, and you'd be satisfied if the Senate were willing to do something to fill up the rest of its hole?
BW: That's exactly right.
You know, last year was a different process. Last year we were arguing about whether there was a problem. There were those that felt there wasn't a problem. And I had a number of press conferences where I expressed my concern about the lack of focus on addressing the problem. I don't think there's anybody — well, I shouldn't say anybody. The vast majority of the people here now recognize that there is a problem, we're in a crisis and we need to fix it. We're in a recession. So, that part's done.
Now the discussion is more internal. I've never said no to a legislator this session and I meet with leadership on a weekly basis — sometimes multiple times a week. My activity this year hasn't been in front of a camera at a podium, concerned about lack of concern by legislators that we have a problem. They've embraced that now. So, it's a different role for me. I'm just as active as I was before — it's just that I'm not in front of a camera when I'm doing it.
ADN: We've heard from the Senate that their plan is a 100 percent solution. At what point does that kind of rhetoric and position become problematic for you, where you're going to feel a need to push back?
BW: We'll see what the House sends over. And if the Senate draws the line and says, 'We're going to do nothing further than what we've done,' then that's a problem. Because I'm not convinced — based on the assumptions one would have to adopt — that passing that one piece of legislation is going to be sufficient to close the gap.
ADN: Are you getting worried about what seems like a standoff between the House and the Senate?
BW: Not quite yet. It has a very different feel than last year. People are taking positions but they're still talking to each other. I guess that's really the difference that I see. And last year, I didn't have, as I recall, a lot of meetings between House and Senate leadership — and that's happening now.
ADN: Do you have any fear that we somehow end up like last year where things break down and the House isn't willing to vote for the Permanent Fund restructuring because they don't get the oil taxes or the income tax to go along with it?
BW: I don't, because I think there's equal motivation or acknowledgement on both bodies of the importance of that piece of legislation, and we did not have that last year. So, we have that this year.
ADN: Do you think there's anything you could have done to be more assertive earlier in the session, to have pushed them so they're a little closer today?
BW: I don't think so. They're their own bodies. I have a high regard for the separation of powers. And for me to weigh in early in the process and sort of try to drive it — it's a process that I respect.
I've always gone wherever I've been invited — I was invited to speak with the House caucus and I went and spoke with them. I would do that with the Senate if they wanted me to do that. I have not said 'no' to anything.
I don't think it would be any further along if I tried to push this. And it's moving. It's getting closer to the end, and I know that we all sort of get anxious about that, a bit, but these are big steps. And I applaud the Senate for having voted not once but twice on this. I went to the gallery in the Senate and I'll do that in the House, as well, and celebrate that. But that's when my work begins, as far as closing that last piece.