Alaska’s gubernatorial election is historic on several levels.
Bill Walker is the first independent to be elected governor in Alaska’s state history. Byron Mallott, Tlingit, is the second Alaska Native to be elected lieutenant governor; he said he will wear his Kwaashk’i Kwaan clan tunic at the inauguration on December 1.
When Walker and Mallott take office, it will be the first time Alaska’s governor and lieutenant governor have both been Alaska-born. Both are former mayors – Walker of Valdez, Mallott of Yakutat and Juneau.
And, of course, there’s the unity ticket that made their election possible: Mallott, the Democratic nominee for governor in the August 19 primary, abandoned his nomination to join Walker’s ticket as the latter’s running mate on September 1, forming what they called the “Alaska First Unity” ticket.
Shortly before the unity ticket was formed, one poll had incumbent Sean Parnell leading 37 percent to Mallott’s 22 percent and Walker’s 20 percent. After the unity ticket was formed, one poll had Walker/Mallott leading Parnell and his running mate, Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan, by 7 points. Walker/Mallott led in eight of 12 polls leading to Election Day November 4.
On November 14, Walker and Mallott were declared the winners after late ballot returns showed their slim vote lead holding: 129,097 to Parnell/Sullivan’s 124,463, a difference of 4,634 votes.
So what does this election mean to Alaska and Alaskans?
The election of an independent governor and Democrat lieutenant governor breaks Alaska’s state government trifecta – one of 36 in the United States, according to Ballotpedia.com – in which one political party holds the governorship and a majority in the House and Senate.
“It is a history-making election indeed,” said Mike Williams Sr., chief of the Yupiit Nation, member of the Akiak Tribal Council and a longtime defender of Alaska Native rights. He predicts changes in the relationship between Alaska Native villages and the state government.
“Equally, with relief and respect [for] our way of life,” he said. “Hunting and fishing rights, transportation, energy and education issues must be addressed. Mr. Mallott brings an added plus for all of us out here. My hope is that they will work closely with our 229 federally recognized Tribes in Alaska.”
Journalist Mark Trahant, Shoshone-Bannock, Atwood Chair of Journalism at the University of Alaska Anchorage, predicts Mallott will be more than “just a normal lieutenant governor.” Walker/Mallott will be “much like Clinton/Gore, a partnership,” Trahant wrote.
Indeed. Asked about his role in the Walker administration, Mallott said on November 15, “Bill Walker and I are a team,” and that they will be working closely together.
‘No one knows Alaska better than Byron Mallott’
Mallott will bring diverse experience to a position with minimal constitutional authority. The lieutenant governor oversees the Division of Elections; is responsible for review and filing of administrative regulations; commissions Alaska's notaries public; oversees the use of the official state seal; and publishes and distributes the Alaska Constitution.
Mallott, however, has unmatched experience in business and government, Laury Roberts Scandling said in an earlier interview. She served as communications director of Mallott’s campaign for governor.
“There is no one who knows Alaska better than Byron Mallott. He has decades of experience in for-profit and non-profit, and he has a true understanding of rural Alaska and its wonders and challenges. He’s a good listener, he brings people together. He believes there’s always a consensus and that you need to find it.”
In addition to serving as mayor of two cities, Mallott served as commissioner of the Alaska Department of Community and Regional Affairs; co-chairman of the state Commission on Rural Governance and Empowerment; chairman of the Nature Conservancy of Alaska; CEO, chairman and director of Sealaska Corporation; president of the Alaska Federation of Natives; and as a director of several banks, including the Federal Reserve Bank.
Mallott also served as executive director of the state’s Permanent Fund Corporation, created by constitutional amendment to manage and protect the state’s income from mineral leases, royalties, and federal mineral revenue-sharing payments. Alaskans receive dividends from this fund.
(Mallott’s election has nationwide significance. Trahant noted that Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau, Mandan/Hidatsa, is believed to be the only other Native American in a state constitutional office in the U.S.)
Diversifying an oil-dependent economy
Former state legislator Willie Iggiagruk Hensley, Inupiaq, said of Walker and Mallott: “They have different views on social issues but on other issues of development, fisheries, education, they [are] in sync.”
Walker and Mallott want to diversify Alaska’s oil-dependent economy, partly by expanding agriculture and tourism and developing the infrastructure needed for economic development in rural areas. They support the development of alternative energy sources such as wind, geothermal, and small hydro projects. Both oppose the Pebble Mine, citing “the undeniable impacts of such a mine …”
They want to develop fish and wildlife co-management agreements between the federal government, the state and Native landowners. They support expanding Medicaid coverage rather than participating in a federally-managed health care exchange.
“Job One,” according to Mallott, is addressing projected revenue declines that threaten the state’s reserves.
Alaska has three main sources of revenue: Oil, federal funding and investment earnings. The state does not have a personal income tax or a state sales tax. A decrease in oil production means a decrease in state revenue and higher energy costs. According to the Alaska Resource Development Council, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System is currently two-thirds empty and daily oil production dropped from 590,000 barrels in 2012 to 531,000 in 2013.
Senate Bill 21, approved in 2013, cut certain taxes and created new incentives for oil producers to encourage more investment and production. But 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. (The Washington Post, however, quoted Revenue Commissioner Angela Rodell as saying that SB 21 has attracted investments from oil companies, including $10 billion in North Slope production over the next 10 years).
A referendum to repeal SB 21 failed in the August 19 primary, and Walker and Mallott pledged before the primary that if SB 21 was retained they would accept it as law.
“Although I do not presently intend to offer new tax legislation, I will monitor North Slope activity to ensure [oil producers’] promises are kept,” Walker stated on his website. “In this and other matters I will be a fierce defender of Alaska’s interests. I also expect the industry to comply with the terms of their oil and gas leases and will act if they do not.” Earlier in his campaign, he said it is “unacceptable” for North Slope leaseholders “to warehouse Alaska’s natural gas while they continue to develop competing projects around the globe.”
Walker supports developing oil and gas resources across the state and has promised to “aggressively pursue” infrastructure development – roads, rail, ports, communications -- with that in mind.
“Alaska is facing a huge fiscal cliff, in part as the result of declining oil revenues,” Walker/Mallott stated on their website. “Alaska needs dozens of new explorers on the North Slope. We need to remove barriers to the smaller companies to drill for oil. Alaska needs to stream line the permitting process at the Department of Natural Resources to reduce the cost and time required to move projects forward.”
‘Quite a change from the past’
Mallott said he and Walker will meet with their transition team on November 21-23 “to look at a full range of issues,” including economic development, infrastructure, education, health care, public safety, corrections, Arctic policy and climate change, natural resources and the environment, and subsistence.
The bipartisan transition team is led by Democrat Ana Hoffman, Yu’pik, president and CEO of Bethel Native Corporation and co-chair of the Alaska Federation of Natives; and Republican Rick Halford, former state Senate president and majority leader who is now a commercial pilot in Aleknagik and Chugiak.
“The big problem for any governor, including Walker/Mallott, is that we have a double whammy going on [with] falling oil production and, now, falling prices for oil -- down 30 percent or so since June,” Hensley said. “With 90 percent of our annual revenue for state operations and capital spending coming from oil, we are digging into savings at rapid rate. So, hard decisions are ahead of them. The two leaders of the transition team are from rural Alaska -- quite a change from the past.”