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As legislative session begins, Walker says he won't sit back and watch

  • Author: Nathaniel Herz
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published January 19, 2016

JUNEAU — Gov. Bill Walker plans to work more collaboratively with the Alaska Legislature this year, and his administration will take a direct role in rallying the three-fourths majority needed to pass his fiscal plan in the state House, he said in an interview Tuesday.

"We're not going to sit back and say, 'You guys figure it out,'" he said. "We will certainly participate in that process."

Walker, a Republican-turned-independent elected in 2014, sparred with top Republican lawmakers during his first legislative session last year, particularly over policies related to development of a natural gas pipeline from the North Slope. This year's legislative session began Tuesday, and Walker said he's planning regular meetings with the chairs of the House and Senate finance and resources committees as he seeks approval of his plan to fix the state's $3.8 billion budget deficit.

"We're going to reach out differently to the Legislature this time," he said. "It's not a matter of going around the leadership — if leadership wants to attend those meetings, it's certainly fine."

Walker's fiscal plan is the center of his legislative agenda this year.

It would restructure the Alaska Permanent Fund and bolster it with oil revenue to create a more predictable flow of money to the state's budget. The budget currently has a huge deficit following a recent plunge in state oil revenues that's tied to lower production and prices; this year, Alaska's revenue is projected to cover less than 30 percent of spending.

"We have a fishing industry, we have our tourism industry, we have education," Walker said. "But boy, without fixing our fiscal problem, it's going to impact every segment of our economy."

His fiscal plan, however, relies on a transfer of money out of a state savings account that requires a three-fourths vote in both the House and Senate before any money can be drawn from it. That means the plan needs votes from both parties in the House, where the majority Republican caucus claims 26 of 40 members. The Senate's majority caucus, with 14 Republicans and a single Democrat, is a three-fourths supermajority.

Some lawmakers from both the Republican and Democratic caucuses have already voiced objections to different elements of Walker's plan. But Walker said Tuesday the state's fiscal crisis is "not a partisan problem, and therefore can't be a partisan solution."

His office, he said, would participate in negotiations between the two caucuses, "as appropriate," to help build a consensus.

Walker also said he hopes to present lawmakers with fiscal contracts and financial terms related to the gas pipeline before the end of the session.

But it's unlikely pipeline politics will dominate this session like it did last year's; Walker said he's currently unconcerned about the state's relationship with the three oil companies whose gas would feed into the line.

Late last year, before the start of a special legislative session on the pipeline, Walker said he was considering a gas reserves tax proposal to force the companies to sell their gas to the project. But he changed his mind after receiving letters from BP and ConocoPhillips that said the companies would be willing to negotiate sales agreements.

Those companies signed agreements in December. Exxon, the biggest owner of gas on the North Slope, didn't sign an agreement, but Walker said he's now "sufficiently comfortable" with the company's commitment to the project, citing his conversations with Exxon officials and a letter the company released in October in which it offered to negotiate a sales agreement.

The company is "sufficiently clear that I'm okay going forward," he said. "I'm comfortable that all three have made sufficient commitments to make gas available."

As for his confidence lawmakers will be done with their 90-day session on schedule? Walker said he scheduled a vacation last week, before the start of the legislative session, after learning a lesson last year — when a planned vacation ended up conflicting with an extended legislative session.

If lawmakers can adjourn on time this year, Walker said, "that would be fantastic."

"There's a lot on the Legislature's plate this session, so I don't know how realistic that is," he said. "If not, we'll work with the Legislature to put additional time on the clock."

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