JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy laid out an optimistic vision of the state’s future Tuesday during an election year address to lawmakers that comes amid a period of higher oil prices and follows a year that was marked by drawn-out, bruising legislative sessions.
The Republican, giving his fourth State of the State speech since taking office in late 2018, said he envisioned a state that is a leader in renewable energy, with energy costs among the lowest in the U.S. He also wants Alaska to finally develop its vast stores of natural gas on the North Slope — something policy makers have pursued for decades only to have plans scrapped, stalled or hit dead ends.
He did not go into great detail on how those could be realized. But he told lawmakers there was a “great obligation” to come together around policies that would solve long-standing issues and create opportunities for generations.
Dunleavy has had an at-times rocky tenure, marked by fights with lawmakers over the budget and the annual check paid to residents from the earnings of the state’s oil-wealth permanent fund. He called for settling the dividend issue.
Debate over the size of the check has overshadowed other issues in recent years. Legislative leaders have said they want a long-term resolution to the debate, too, but an agreement so far has been elusive.
Under a redistricting plan that is the subject of litigation, 59 of the Legislature’s 60 members face election this year. Dunleavy faces reelection too.
In his speech, Dunleavy touted his administration’s handling of the pandemic, citing such things as testing and vaccine distribution efforts and efforts to help shore up the healthcare workforce. He has long said that vaccination is a personal decision.
“My administration’s job is to make sure our healthcare system is strong and you have the tools available for you to take care of yourself,” he said.
The administration has joined efforts nationally to fight federal vaccine mandates.
Dunleavy has faced criticism on both sides for his approach to the pandemic — by some who say he hasn’t done or said enough and from others who have accused the administration of pushing vaccines. Republican Rep. Christopher Kurka, who is running for governor, has posted a petition calling for the state’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink, to be fired, citing in part her support of vaccines. Dunleavy last week said he stood by Zink.
Oil prices in recent months have been at among their highest levels during Dunleavy’s administration. Prices have been in the upper $80-a-barrel range; this time last year, they were around $55 a barrel.
But Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich, an Anchorage Democrat, said building a budget “on the stock market and the volatile price of oil is not a sustainable plan for our next generation.” Begich has argued the state needs new revenues.
Begich, in a statement, also took issue with Dunleavy’s criticism of the Biden administration.
Dunleavy has been at odds with the federal administration on some resource development issues and in his speech, Dunleavy said the administration had shown “hostility” toward the state.
Begich said Dunleavy failed to acknowledge “the impact of the billions of dollars brought in by the Biden Administration, which has assisted in our ability to address the pandemic, rebuild our infrastructure, and frankly, address our deficit.”
Senate President Peter Micciche, a Soldotna Republican, said a message he heard in the speech was that “an election year is not an excuse for inaction.” Dunleavy urged lawmakers to prove wrong Alaskans who think nothing will get done because this is an election year.
Micciche told reporters he hopes to see “more of a team effort” this year between lawmakers and the Dunleavy administration.
“I perhaps wear a pair of rose colored glasses, that when someone stands in front of a mic and talks about a vision, that they mean it,” he said. “The test is going to be, how serious is that vision and is the administration going to put the work in on being here in this building for the next 90 days, guiding us through and working with us. Those big pieces don’t move by themselves. You can’t drop a bill and have it magically pass.”