Gov. Mike Dunleavy and his team sat down with Clarion reporters Brian Mazurek and Victoria Petersen on March 25 to discuss his recently proposed budget, education, local industry, public safety and more. In the first part, we look at the governor’s approach to public safety and his take on the Alaska LNG project.
During his campaign, Dunleavy committed to being tough on crime. Since the Legislature began in January, he has filed four crime bills that look to slow down Alaska’s rise in crime. Three such bills repeal portions of SB 91, which was criminal justice legislation passed in 2016. The last bill looks to tighten laws related to sexual crimes. In his budget, Dunleavy proposes cost-savings by shipping 500 prisoners to facilities out of state and shutting down Kenai’s Wildwood Correctional Facility’s sentencing wing, which will lay off more than 40 local employees.
The Alaska LNG Project is currently undergoing an economic analysis by the Alaska Gasline Development Corporation (AGDC) to determine if the project is still in the state’s best interest. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is also working on an Environmental Impact Survey (EIS) for the project that is due to be completed in March of 2020.
Clarion Reporter Brian Mazurek: I’d like to know where your administration stands on the Alaska LNG Project. Are they going to continue to fund AGDC through the completion of the environmental impact survey? And does your administration believe that this is still something that would be good for Alaska?
Dunleavy: So if AGDC through their economic study determines that it’s not economical or it’s not feasible, I’m not sure why we would continue with a non-economic project. We just got back from Houston, Texas for CERAWeek, which is one of the largest, if not the largest, gas and oil investor conferences in the world. Folks from all over the world were there, from Saudi Sheiks to folks from Asia, Europe and North America. There are all kinds of gas projects and oil projects going on and those projects are competing for investment funds. And so, AGDC will know hopefully within 50 days or less whether the project as it’s laid out is feasible and economic and then we’ll get that report. But I’m going to let them do their business and then let us know what’s going on.
Revenue Commissioner Bruce Tangeman: And I could add one quick thing to that because there is some confusion. Everybody’s concerned about the FERC permit getting done. The FERC permit has a shelf life, and it’s for a very specific project. So even if you got it done and put it on the shelf, it is only good for a certain number of years and you would have to build that exact same project. So not only would it have to be economic within a window, I believe seven years or so, it would have to be the exact same project. So I think that’s why it’s important to understand if it’s economic first. If this thing isn’t going to pencil out, then do you throw your last $30 million to get something that may or may not be useful down the road? So I think that’s what Joe Dubler is looking into right now, is does this thing really have legs. The biggest thing is spreading the risk. The previous administration decided to put 100 percent of the risk on the state’s shoulders. That puts the permanent fund at risk. That puts our state’s future at risk. We’ve spent a billion dollars, but it’s in the context of a $50 to $60 billion project possibly. So we are a long, long way from breaking ground on this project. So now is the time to see if it’s going to work, see if there are partners that are going to help us de-risk this thing and then move forward under that scenario.
Mazurek: So if AGDC determines that this project is not economically beneficial, then we will not pursue finishing the environmental impact survey either?
Dunleavy: If they determine that it’s not economic, that’s a real possibility. But I think what AGDC will do is, have a conversation with the Legislature because it is a creature of two bills that were passed to try and get gas to Alaskans. They then will have the conversation with the Legislature as to what they want us to do next. Meaning, what do they want AGDC to do in the state next? Do they want to find other ways to monetize their gas? Other ways to maybe export the gas? They’ll have that conversation with them, I hope.
Mazurek: I’d like to transition to the Wildwood Correctional Facility. Part of your budget includes closing down a section of the Wildwood Correctional Facility, which would lead to about 40 people being laid off here in the peninsula. Is shutting down a portion of Wildwood in line with your promises to be tough on crime?
Dunleavy: Yeah, very good question. I’m going to defer to the OMB Director Arduin on this particular issue.
Office of Management and Budget Director Donna Arduin: The reason that one was chosen is it’s one of the only places in the state where there’s a separate building, separate facility, for the sentenced versus the pretrial population. If you’re going to save money on corrections, you have to shut down a prison. You can’t just move some people out. You still have all of your costs, you still have the correctional officers who still have all the overhead. You still have all the expenses. So that’s why the Wildwood sentenced wing was chosen.
Mazurek: The budget also includes roughly 500 prisoners being shipped out of state, to be housed in a different facility. There is a cost-savings associated with that move, about $18 million. There is also a social cost to a move like that in terms of inmates being able to get in contact with family members, who may or may not be able to visit them if they move hundreds or thousands of miles out of state. It also affects those inmates ability to reenter into society if we’re assuming that they’re going to come back to the state of Alaska after they’ve served their sentence. Have you taken that into account?
Arduin: The 500 who would be sent out of state are going to have the longest remaining sentences. We have a number of prisoners around the state who have over 20 years left in their sentence. So we’re looking at sending those who have long-term sentences out of state, not necessarily the same prisoners who are sentenced here at Wildwood.
The governor also has anti-crime bills. It’s what I call them because they are to stop crime. If those proposals would actually add prisoners — a number of prisoners. So that budget proposal will change significantly in terms of shutting prisons down. We may still send prisoners out of state, but we’re likely to be opening prisons, not shutting them. If the Legislature would pass the crime bills.
Mazurek: In the press conference, after you introduced those crime bills to legislation, you mentioned that you’re more than willing to increase the resources to house additional prisoners if necessary. Are you still committed to that?
Dunleavy: Yes, I’m committed to improving our public safety outcomes across the board dramatically. They’re the worst in the country. Absolutely. I’ve made no secret, no qualms about that.
Mazurek: A local activist group called Community United for Safety and Protection has recently asked legislators to amend one of your crime bills to include language that would criminalize the practice of police officers engaging in sexual conduct during an investigation. Are you aware of this and would you support such an amendment to your legislation? Would you be willing to look into this?
Dunleavy: I’m not aware of what the amendment is, what it says, et cetera. So I don’t want to be speaking out of turn. We’ll look into it to understand it. I guess my view would be police officers engaging in sexual conduct while they’re on duty sounds like a pretty inappropriate thing for them to be doing. I’m glad you brought it to our attention.
This interview has been edited for clarity.