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Walker administration schedules Fairbanks conference on Alaska's fiscal position

Gov. Bill Walker has set the schedule and invited some of the participants for his proposed conference in Fairbanks on a big-picture discussion of the state's fiscal crisis and new ways to raise money to pay for government.

The conference -- which Walker previously hinted at -- is set for three days at the University of Alaska Fairbanks beginning June 5.

Alaska is facing a multibillion-dollar budget deficit following a sharp drop in the price of oil. Revenues from oil taxes and royalties fund the vast majority of state programs and services.

The Legislature's top budget expert has said deep cuts won't be enough to fix the problem and some combination of new taxes and tapping money from Permanent Fund earnings will be necessary.

A spokeswoman for Walker, Grace Jang, said the conference would examine ways for the state to diversify its income.

"It's basically getting the conversation started on exploring different ways of getting revenue," she said in a phone interview.

An invitation went out Wednesday to about 250 members of Walker's transition team, the prime participants in the conference. The invitation said the costs of university dorm rooms and most meals would be covered, though it urges the transition team members and their organizations to pay their own travel costs. The Walker administration will invite other participants depending on the response from the transition team, and legislators will also be invited.

Walker, Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott and members of Walker's Cabinet will also be present, primarily to listen, said Claire Richardson, a special assistant to Mallott who's organizing the conference.

The discussions will also be open to the media and members of the public, who will be able to observe the conversations and write down their questions, Richardson said.

The conference assemblies and presentations will be recorded and posted on the Internet "to expand the conversation statewide," the invitation says.

"Whether it's a Rotary or a coffee shop, people will be able to take this back over the summer and have these conversations," Richardson said.

Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, said he was pleased to see Walker following through on his commitment to convene the conference.

"He said he was going to do it, and he's making good on what he said he's going to do," Coghill said in a brief phone interview Thursday. "So, good on him."

Coghill's father Jack, a longtime Republican legislator from Nenana and a delegate to the Alaska Constitutional Convention, was one of the key participants in the two-day 2004 Conference of Alaskans in Fairbanks, called by then-Gov. Frank Murkowski to address a similar crisis in state finance.