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Alice Rogoff: Political transitions leave short window to introduce needed change

  • Author: Alice Rogoff
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published November 22, 2014

As Bill Walker and Byron Mallott prepare to lead we Alaskans for the next four years, I humbly share my experience based on watching changes of administrations over the years, be it in Washington D.C., or in Alaska.

The honeymoon will be painfully short. And the window for the "Unity" ticket to make big change will only stretch slightly longer. So being decisive will be important for the Walker administration, from the first day, from the inaugural speech.

The campaign committed to "Putting Alaska First," a clear, simple message that resonated with a majority of voters. Alaska will hold Walker to that. Because some skeptical uncertainty will greet a nonpartisan executive branch, Walker will need a simple and clear organizing principle for his priorities. Clear messaging is the most essential element in successful governing.

The simple campaign message of Alaska First did that well. Simple clarity applies to governing, too, and that message should stay at the core of the new administration. But there should be a second prism for use in governing: "Building Alaska."

Walker should update Jay Hammond's oft-cited test for development projects: Does it pay for itself? Is it environmentally sound? Does it benefit Alaskans? The Alaska of today faces different challenges from the one in Hammond's day. Walker will need to support only those priorities that help build Alaska as a society, both economically and in human capital.

The new administration must remind urban Alaska that villages and rural areas are the soul of our state. This is an overarching point that, like building a future diversified economy, should be used as a threshold test in assessing all statewide priorities. Whatever the subject, Walker should ask this question: Is this spending request, infrastructure plan, or decision to litigate going to bring sufficient dollars, jobs and well-being to Alaskans as a whole?

And in answering that question, he must embrace transparency. Supporters and critics alike must have their say with full knowledge of what government is doing. They must be allowed to openly evaluate successes and failures, and to know that their feedback matters. That means not dodging questions, not stonewalling the public when serious issues and concerns arise.

Building Alaska, looking ahead

We often fall into the trap of thinking of creating opportunities through development as an either/or proposition, as if someone is either for development or not. Alaska needs infrastructure; there is no doubt about that. But we should want some smart projects that will pay dividends for all.

I'm not expert enough on oil and gas matters to suggest which projects and policies meet that test and which do not. But, for example, take mining projects: Without changing state tax policy for mining (as the Alaska Mining Commission has even recommended), no mining project today yields much in the way of state revenue. Walker's administration should work with the Legislature to factor mining into the state's fiscal future in a meaningful way.

In keeping with making long-term and shared benefit for Alaskans a priority, there are plenty of ideas to consider, and many of them don't require decades of planning and interminable studies or hundreds of millions of dollars. They are all worth considering, but they're not the only possibilities.

Develop a plan to incentivize non-resource-extraction activities. Start building low-cost, small-scale Bering Sea mini-ports for shipping and search-and-rescue support. Add capacity for localized tourism. Focus on the Bering Sea coast as the site of future development in the face of emerging Arctic shipping activity.

Make any and all regulatory changes, large and small, to bring ownership of Alaska's fisheries back to our state. Develop demonstration projects in value-added fish products, starting with fish leather made out of discarded fish skins.

Accelerate the in-place testing of every form of alternative energy production (small-scale hydro, geothermal, solar, wind, tidal, biomass, etc.). Let each remote community work with the state to choose which form it should test. We are a natural "laboratory" for these energy sources and should set up a way to not only install but assess and share the results.

Build a statewide emphasis on "Cultural Tourism" to help reinforce the notion that our Alaska Native villages welcome visitors. Develop modern, Internet-based tourism "kits" that any village can use. Restructure the state Commerce Department's tourism marketing function to highlight these "authentic" travel opportunities to the world of travelers Outside.

Education is the most important obligation of our state and local governments. Start by being honest and acknowledging our massive problem in not living up to national norms. Launch a statewide task force to identify best practices among all school districts. Look hard at, for example, the ANSEP program and try to imitate what it does among all school districts. Work with the University Board of Regents to accelerate conversion to a single, unified state university system. The administrative overlap savings could be spent to fund improvements needed in the K-12 college readiness curriculum. And finally, expand technical training programs in the hub towns.

Alice Rogoff is owner and publisher of Alaska Dispatch News.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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