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Alaska’s First Native Governor? Meet Byron Mallott

Byron Mallott, Tlingit, at 71 is looking to be Alaska’s next governor and the second Native American governor in the United States.

UPDATED: Third paragraph now reflects that Mallott would be second Native U.S. Governor.

It’s Friday morning at 7 o’clock Alaska time and Byron Mallott’s on the phone, returning a reporter’s interview request. He’s been on the road and he sounds tired.

Mallott is pushing hard. Two weeks before the August 19 primary, a poll shows him 15 points behind incumbent Sean Parnell in the race for governor of Alaska. But, Mallott said, pollsters telephoned Alaskans who use landlines, not the cell phones used in most of rural Alaska, where Mallott is certain his strength is.

If Mallott's hunch is right, he could be one step closer to becoming the first Native American governor of Alaska. (It was initially believed he'd be the first Native American governor of a U.S. state. That distinction goes to Johnston Murray, Chickasaw, governor of Oklahoma in 1951-55.)

Mallott, Tlingit, is a youthful 71 and has been involved in politics and government for almost 50 years. He was serving as mayor of Yakutat when the current governor was getting ready for kindergarten. He went on to serve as mayor of Juneau, and direct various state agencies, commissions and statewide organizations.

Mallott (pronounced Mal-LOTT) was born in 1943 in his ancestral home of Yakutat. He was elected mayor at 22. In his ensuing career, he served as commissioner of the state department of Community and Regional Affairs; president of the Alaska Federation of Natives; executive director, Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation; co-chairman of the state Commission on Rural Governance and Empowerment; chairman of the Nature Conservancy of Alaska; and president, CEO and senior fellow of the First Alaskans Institute.

He served as a trustee of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian, member of the Alaskan Command Civilian Advisory Board; and member at large of the Institute of the North.

On the business side, he served as CEO, chairman and director of Sealaska Corporation; director, Alaska Communications Systems Holdings; and founding director of Alaska Commercial Fisheries and Agriculture Bank. He served on the boards of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, Native American Bancorporation Co., Native American Bank, N.A., Seafirst Bank, Alaska Air, the National Alliance of Business, and Yak-tat Kwaan, Inc., an Alaska Native corporation. He is a licensed pilot and a commercial fisherman.

Mallott has an honorary doctorate in humanities from the University of Alaska, was executive-in-residence at University of Alaska Southeast’s School of Business & Public Administration, and was inducted into the Alaska Business Hall of Fame. He was named Alaskan of the Year in 2012 and is a recipient of the Eric Johnson Champion of Native Rights Award.

Mallott is one of eight candidates for governor. Here’s where he stands on the issues.

Fiscal restraint. Mallott wants a full review of transportation needs across the state before investing in the Knik Arm Crossing, a proposed 1.74-mile toll bridge over Cook Inlet’s Knik Arm. The bridge would connect Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, with the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, Alaska’s fastest-growing region.

Proponents say the bridge would create thousands of construction jobs and, after completion, would create better access to land for commercial, industrial and residential development, and would reduce the cost of freight to the Interior and North Slope by creating a more efficient route from the Port of Anchorage to points north.

Mallott said committing hundreds of millions of state dollars to the project while borrowing from reserves to balance the budget is shortsighted and imprudent.

Let’s talk frankly about the truth that our falling revenues are eating away at our savings, even as we cut spending,” Mallott wrote on his campaign website. “Our opportunity to make course corrections is limited and (Knik Arm Crossing) is one project that needs a correction before we throw more money at it. We are both a resourceful and a resource-rich state. We can have a bright future if we deal with reality.”

Gas pipeline. The Legislature earlier this year approved a plan for the state to negotiate a partnership with North Slope producers BP, ConocoPhillips, and ExxonMobil and pipeline company TransCanada in a proposed gas pipeline and liquefied natural gas export project.

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The 800-mile, 42-inch-diameter pipeline and gas treatment plant on the North Slope would cost between $45 billion and $65 billion, McGraw Hill Financial reported. If all proceeds as planned, the project would begin operating in 2024 and would annually produce between 16 and 18 million tons of liquefied natural gas, mostly for export markets.

“The plan is for the state to take its royalty and tax revenue share of natural gas production ‘in kind,’ or in gas instead of cash, and to invest in 25 percent of the project,” McGraw Hill Financial reported.

The state will separately negotiate a deal with TransCanada to invest in the state's 25 percent share of the proposed pipeline. Some lawmakers felt the state could finance its 25 percent share without TransCanada’s participation, and former Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski argued that “the terms of the proposed deal with the pipeline company were too much to TransCanada's advantage,” McGraw Hill Financial reported.

Mallott said investing “potentially billions of Alaskan dollars in the gas line project” is the biggest risk this state has ever undertaken. “Giving away too much in negotiations will increase the state’s risk and jeopardize our savings. Let’s make sure the rewards are larger than the risks.”

Oil taxation. Mallott supports repealing Senate Bill 21, which cut certain taxes and created new incentives for oil producers to encourage more investment and production. Oil production is expected to continue to decline to 312,000 barrels per day in 2023, according to state forecasts. And, the Anchorage Daily News reports, the state Department of Revenue projects “years of deficit spending consuming the state's savings” since the passage of SB 21.

“Alaska needs an oil and tax structure that fairly shares the value of the resource between industry and the public at a wide range of price and production scenarios for years to come,” Mallott wrote on his campaign website. “… [T]he continuing uncertainty over Alaska’s oil and gas tax structure hurts the business climate and investment opportunities.”

Alaskans will vote August 19 on whether to repeal SB 21. Mallott said he’ll vote for repeal, and as governor would work to develop a tax structure that is balanced and fair for Alaskans and the oil industry. (The Alaska Dispatch quoted a former oil and gas attorney as saying the oil industry represented its shareholders well as it fought for the oil tax cut in SB 21, but the state “ended up giving and giving and giving until we’re left with not that much.”)

Diversifying Alaska’s economy. With oil production slipping in a state that derives at least 80 percent of its tax revenues from oil, economic diversification is growing in importance. “We need to continue to grow our non-renewable resources. We need to introduce our natural gas to world markets,” Mallott said. He couldn’t say specifically what economic diversification would look like, but he said, “We need to go out into the world and invite investment here.”

Mallott said it’s possible to further develop Alaska’s oil and gas resources and protect the environment. “You have to have strong environmental protection laws. You have to have that ethos,” he said. “You also have to be able as a government leader to be clear that you represent the people, not just a particular interest.”

Pebble Mine. Mallott is opposed to it, saying it would “upset a delicate natural balance, threaten jobs and destroy a sacred way of life in Alaska.”

“Bristol Bay, with its natural beauty and salmon resources, is a wonder of the world and a vestige of an untouched past that exists in too few parts of our planet today,” Mallott wrote on his campaign website. “It has sustained the peoples and cultures of this region for millennia, and it must do so for untold generations to come. Once the door to mining is opened in this sensitive area, it can never be closed again.”

Subsistence. Mallott wants to resolve conflicts between state and federal laws governing subsistence fishing and hunting. The federal Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act recognizes that to rural Native Alaskans and non-Natives, the resources of Alaska's land and waters are a cultural way of life and an economic necessity in villages where there is very little cash income and few jobs. Title VIII of the law guarantees rural Native Alaskans and non-Natives the subsistence harvest of fish and game.

The law requires the state of Alaska to recognize and enforce the Title VIII provision; however, the rural preference in Title VIII is in conflict with the state’s constitution, which declares that Alaska's natural resources belong equally to all citizens. As a result, the state and federal governments maintain separate programs for providing for subsistence on their lands and waters within the state.

Mallott said support for subsistence is above 60 percent of state residents. “The legislature has been where the resistance lies,” he said.

“As governor, I will champion changes to federal and state law to allow for unified management of fish and game on the lands and waters of Alaska,” he wrote on his campaign website. “In times of scarcity, local residents should be given priority for subsistence hunting and fishing. Local advisory bodies should be given great deference in the formulation of policies regarding species management, consistent with the sustained yield principle.”

Health care. Mallott supports expanding Medicaid coverage rather than participating in a federally managed health care exchange. But the Medicaid payment system needs to be fixed. “Making sure Alaskans receive adequate health care, and that the people who provide these valuable services are paid for it, is a priority for a healthy Alaska,” Mallott wrote on his campaign website. “Paying bills on time and making government work well is a basic job of the governor. We can, and must, do better.”