By Suzanne Ashe
Alaska Governor Bill Walker met with Borough Assembly members and Skagway residents in a standing room-only town hall meeting on Oct. 14.
“I really enjoy this part of my job, when I can get out of the third-floor bubble and come to ‘Real Alaska, and I’m in ‘Real Alaska’ today,” Walker told the audience.
Walker pointed out that although Lt. Governor Byron Mallott had lived in Skagway for a while, he had never been here before.
Walker spoke for about 30 minutes regarding the State’s fiscal crisis and about the Juneau Access project, before he took questions.
“I didn’t run for governor to talk about taxes. I didn’t run for governor to talk about permanent fund changes, or permanent fund in anyway,” Walker said. “I ran for governor because I didn’t think we were making decisions that were best for Alaska.
“We have never been in this situation before, but what’s exciting is that we can do this ourselves,” he said.
He told the crowd that the state is drawing on its reserves at a rate of $12 million per day.
The most difficult decision I’ve ever made in my entire life was about the permanent fund, he said.
In June Walker vetoed $1.3 billion, including $430 million in oil tax credits. His vetoes also included roughly half of the money for this year’s permanent fund dividends.
“We just have to do things differently than we have in the last 30 years,” Walker said. “We’ve been eating off a menu for 30 years, with no prices on it. Now we need to decide how we are going to pay for it.”
Earlier this year, the price of oil plummeted to $26 a barrel.
Gov. Walker visits Skagway
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“We have burned through $13 billion dollars. I mean, if that’s not burning the roof off the rafters, I don’t know what is,” Walker said.
While the average dividend since the inception of the program has been $1,150, many were counting on a larger amount this year. Indeed, this year’s checks would have been $2,052 without my vetoes. Recipients this year received $1,022.
“I looked at some decisions, and it was hard,” Walker said. We need to make some changes.” He said that the state would not touch the principal for the permanent fund, but will look at fuel tax and other revenues.
“We have to decide the Alaska that we want. A $1.2 billion dollar budget, isn’t something that we want,” Walker said.
Walker visited Haines before coming to Skagway and hit the same talking points. The Juneau Access project was on his mind, but he will not make a decision until gathering input.
DOT and the Federal Highway Administration prefer what’s known as Alternative 2B. It would extend the capital city’s highway about 50 miles north up the east side of Lynn Canal to the Katzehin River. The road would end at a new ferry terminal. From there, a ferry would take cars and people up to Skagway or Haines. Drivers from Juneau would be able to access Anchorage and other areas and vice-versa. The drawback is the estimated construction cost for that option at $574 million.
Several members of the public spoke out about the road option, saying it was not wanted or needed. But the state has already accepted some federal money for the project.
“We are going to introduce some some revenue pieces” Walker said. “We have been ordering off a menu for 30 years, with no prices on it. Now we are going to decide what to order, and who is going to pay for it.”
Whether to go with a road or improved ferries is a big decision for him.
Walker stated that he was a home builder before he ran for government.
“I had to make some tough decisions,” Walker said.