Walker takes office, promises to expand Medicaid in Alaska

JUNEAU — In his first speech after taking office, Alaska Gov. Bill Walker said his administration would begin work immediately to expand Medicaid in the state.

Walker took the oath of office Monday in Juneau — becoming the state’s first governor not affiliated with a political party — on a Bible that his spokeswoman said had been in his family since the 1800s. He was sworn in, surrounded by family and by Alaska Supreme Court Justice Daniel Winfree, who joked at the end: “You may now kiss the bride.”

And Walker did, leaning over to kiss first lady Donna Walker.

During a whirlwind day that also included receptions, Walker held a brief first news conference, announcing Valerie Davidson as health commissioner, Sam Cotten as acting Fish and Game commissioner and Marty Rutherford as a deputy Natural Resources commissioner. His picture hung alongside those of Alaska’s former governors in the third-floor hallway of the state Capitol.

The swearing in ceremony for Walker and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott was held at Centennial Hall in a packed ballroom that included current and former state lawmakers and Alaskans from across the state. Alaska Airlines added an additional flight to Juneau, which is accessible only by air or water, for the inauguration.

Among those on stage were former Gov. Sean Parnell, who lost to Walker in last month’s election; Parnell’s wife, Sandy, and Parnell’s lieutenant governor, Mead Treadwell. 

Walker thanked the Parnells for helping to make the transition as smooth as possible.

An attorney perhaps best known for his support of an all-Alaska natural gas pipeline, Walker finished second to Parnell in the 2010 gubernatorial primary. He ran this time as an independent, initially with Craig Fleener as his running mate.

After the primary, in an effort to mount a stronger challenge to Parnell, Walker joined with Mallott, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, to create a “unity” ticket. As part of the package, Walker changed his political affiliation from Republican to undeclared and Mallott became his running mate.

Walker has said he intends to reach out to Mallott as part of his decision-making process. Fleener, who willingly stepped aside for Mallott on the ticket, was master of ceremonies at the inauguration. Walker thanked him and retiring state Sen. Hollis French, who had been Mallott’s running mate, for the sacrifice they made.

Walker faces a number of challenges as governor, including budget deficits amid lower revenues. He also will have to decide how to proceed on a major liquefied natural gas project that the state is pursuing with oil and gas and pipeline companies.

During an at-times emotional speech, Walker, who was born and raised in Alaska, recalled growing up in a family that for much of his childhood was “poorer than poor.” He talked about the work ethic instilled in him by his father, which included him taking a janitorial job at age 12 to help the family after it and their town of Valdez were devastated by the 1964 earthquake, and the proud memory of when Alaska became a state in 1959.

He choked up at several points, including when mentioning his parents and a sister, who did not live to see him become governor. 

There were light moments, too, like when, as a 5-year-old, opening the door of the family outhouse at Delta Junction to find a herd of buffalo. He described, to laughter, his decision to make a beeline for the house, rather than to wait out the animals in temperatures of 40 degrees below zero, as his “first bold move.”

Walker also used the speech to touch on policy, including his intent to make good on a campaign promise to expand Medicaid, something Parnell had resisted, despite broad-based support, citing cost concerns, and a pledge for an open, transparent government.

He warned of lean times ahead with low oil prices but said there was no reason the situation could not be turned around. He said Alaska is rich in resources and the key to a growing economy is low-cost energy.

Alaska doesn’t have a resource problem, but a distribution problem, he said — one he said he is committed to addressing.

Both he and Mallott, who was dressed in Alaska Native regalia and kept his remarks brief, talked about Alaskans coming together. “I know that hard work is not a partisan effort but an Alaskan value. There is no natural disaster, man-made catastrophe or fiscal crisis that can withstand the force of the mighty Alaskan spirit,” Walker said. “Like a family, we are diverse, we are passionate, especially when we disagree, but we are all united in a common thread. We are rising as one.”

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On Inauguration Day, 200 state employees received letters asking them to resign to make room for Walker’s hires, the Juneau Empire reported.

The State of Alaska employs 16,000 people statewide. The 200 asked to resign were exempt employees, including commissioners, deputy commissioners and directors, spokeswoman Grace Jang said. Not everyone’s resignation will be accepted.

Rutherford will serve as acting commissioner of Natural Resources until newly appointed Commissioner Mark Myers begins work Jan. 1.

Former state legislator Cotten is in the running to keep the job of Fish and Game commissioner permanently. Cotten has served on several fisheries-related boards, including the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council. He was born in Juneau and lives in Eagle River.

The new governor is constitutionally obligated to appoint at least an acting commissioner to every department on his first day in office. Out of the list of Walker’s appointees, only a few are permanent, as long as the Legislature approves them. The rest are considered “acting” or “interim.”

Four commissioners were carried over from the Parnell administration: the Department of Education and Early Development’s Mike Hanley; the Department of Environmental Conservation’s Larry Hartig; the Department of Public Safety’s Gary Folger; and the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities’ Patrick Kemp. Hanley, Hartig and Kemp are all listed as “acting” commissioners.