Gov.-elect Bill Walker and running mate Byron Mallott take office in a little more than a week, but the celebration won't last long for a state dangerously dependent on plunging oil prices and a savings account that could soon vanish.
That dose of economic reality was the takeaway message as the pair's three-day transition conference began Friday night in Anchorage, a gathering of Alaskans from across the state notable for its diversity, with more than 250 delegates who will discuss policy ideas for the new administration crossing political, age, racial and geographical boundaries.
A broad coalition of people is something you'd expect from the so-called unity ticket, the first nonparty team to win the governor's office and a fusion of a longtime Democrat and Republican who joined forces after bonding on the campaign trail over shared anxiety -- and hope -- for the state's future.
When they clasped hands in victory before the big crowd at the new sports complex at the University of Alaska Anchorage on Friday night, they drew a standing ovation.
But the joy quickly evaporated. Their speeches were short. And then it was time for the opening order of business, a panel discussion on the state's daunting fiscal hurdles by economists and a fiscal activist.
Talking to a reporter, Walker said it was important to start the weekend's discussion with budget issues because that will be the backdrop for the talks going through Sunday in Cuddy Hall at UAA, with 17 committees of Alaska experts and stakeholders honing in on such things as health care, education, subsistence, and oil and gas development.
They won't create a "blueprint" for a Walker administration, said Grace Jang, spokeswoman for the Walker-Mallott team. But they will discuss problems and successes, and search for solutions.
"It's getting the conversation going," Jang said, adding that this is the first time in recent memory that a governor's transition effort has been open to the public.
Walker told a reporter the public shouldn't take any "subliminal" messages from the events to determine steps he plans to take as governor. Asked if any of the committee leaders will serve as commissioners in his administration, Walker said: "Anything is possible but the (transition conference) wasn't set up that way."
Members of Walker's cabinet aren't expected to be announced until next week. The inauguration is Dec. 1, when Walker will replace Republican Gov. Sean Parnell, Alaska's chief executive since 2009.
In his short opening remarks, Walker addressed the state's financial woes indirectly, joking that anyone in the audience who could figure out how to boost the price of oil to $200 a barrel (it's currently about $75 a barrel) would get another free dinner.
More seriously, he said: "It's not about Bill and Byron, it's about Alaska. "In times of need we all pull the same end of the rope. We're there again."
The panel of economists talked in harsh terms about the $3 billion deficit the state faces this year.
Jonathan King, with Northern Economics in Anchorage, said it's important to remain positive as the hard times come, but he said they're surely coming, and soon.
"It's not how will we eke out growth, it's what will the recession look like," he said, adding that Anchorage already may be grinding into an economic slowdown, with jobs growth in the state's biggest city appearing to be slightly negative for the first half of this year.
Brad Keithley, an oil and gas consultant turned fiscal activist who has advocated for a sharply reduced budget, said with oil prices where they are, the state is losing about $10 million a day. To make up the difference, every man, woman and child in Alaska would have to pay about $4,500.
The state's savings, more than $8 billion a year, will be gone in three years.
"The challenge ahead is to reduce spending," he said, "and we're talking about substantial reductions in spending."
If there was any hope in the room, it came from the audience of Alaskans, most of whom raised their hand when King asked how many had survived the oil price-driven crash of 1988 and 1989.
John Shively, chair of Pebble Limited Partnership who will be part of the Oil and Gas Committee, said the diversity was notable. "You look at the breadth of people they have and it's impressive. You got young people, old geezers like me. A lot of Native participation," and fair a balance of Democrats and Republicans.
Delegates include Republicans such as Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, who will be part of a committee discussing the Arctic, and former Republican Lt. Gov. Loren Leman, who will be part of a committee discussing fiscal policy.
There were prominent Democrats, such as former state Rep. Ethan Berkowitz, who will be on the economic development committee, and environmentalists, such as Rebecca Noblin, Alaska director for the Center for Biological Diversity, who will serve on the Arctic committee.
A committee on subsistence will include John "Sky" Starkey, an attorney who has often fought the state to enhance or defend rural subsistence rights, and Rod Arno, who has often opposed Starkey's views as executive director of the Alaska Outdoor Council.
There were plenty of independents, too, in the audience, no surprise for a nonparty ticket.
Walker told a reporter he wants to hear a balance of ideas from people with a variety of views.
"We are reaching out to you to ask you to help us," Walker told the audience. "We want your input, your ideas on working together. That is critical to Alaska's future."
Walker transition conference participants
Here's a list of the entire group participating in the transition conference, as released by Walker's office early Saturday. They're sorted by subcommittee:
Arctic Policy and Climate Change
Oil and Gas