Tuesday night, Governor Michael J. Dunleavy (R-Alaska) addressed a joint meeting of the House and Senate during his first State of the State speech. As is typical of such speeches, he used the opportunity to introduce (and, at times, reintroduce) his legislative agenda, relying heavily upon lofty rhetoric and myriad specifics-to-be-named-later. He boiled his goals down to five bullet points up front:
- We’re going to declare war on criminals.
- We’re going to get our spending in line with our revenue.
- We’re going to protect Alaskans’ Permanent Fund dividends.
- We’re going to grow our economy and put Alaskans to work.
- We must restore public trust in government and elected officials.
Dunleavy’s official twitter account, which echoed key points during the speech, debuted a complimentary new hashtag in its first and last tweets of the night: #AKTrust. How that will age is anyone’s guess.
The speech lasted just a tick over 23 minutes — less than half the average 47-minutes-per-address during the tenure of his predecessor, Gov. Bill Walker (I-Alaska). The brevity was anchored in vows to honor campaign commitments. At the forefront, restoring trust in government through populist charges; a topic he broached in his opening remarks, reminding viewers and lawmakers alike that, “The court system has no power except what the people give. The legislature has no power except what the people give. The governor has no power either, except what you, the people of Alaska, give.”
The governor promised to offer a slate of three constitutional amendments, scheduled for introduction next week, to be voted on (if they pass the legislature) by the people. First, Dunleavy said, will be a “spending limit and savings plan that will keep politicians from spending every penny we have, one that allows us to save excess revenue when possible for future Alaskans.”
Second, he said he will propose a constitutional amendment requiring that any change made to the Permanent Fund must be approved at the ballot box.
A third would create a similar requirement for any proposed taxes, all but dooming any attempts at new revenue.
These public referendums on forthcoming policy, he said, would “try to bring order to the spending mania.”
Dunleavy also spoke of diversifying the economy without subsidizing new sectors. “I repeat: no tax credits and no subsidies from state government,” he warned to a moderate reception of applause.
The largest, and by far most aggressive, portion of the address focused on public safety.
“We all know crime is out of control,” he said. “And when it comes to sexual assault, Alaska stands alone. Our sexual assault rate is the highest in the nation.”
Dunleavy said that his administration represents “a new day” as it pertains to crime. With subtle pangs of the Gov. Sean Parnell (R-Alaska) administration’s “Choose Respect” campaign to combat domestic and sexual violence, he asked Alaskans to “join in making Alaska the safest state in the country.” On the policy side of this, the governor reasserted his campaign promise to “repeal and replace” Senate Bill 91 — the much maligned criminal reform bill passed in 2016 under Walker.
It’s impossible to deny that crime, in rural Alaska and population hubs alike, has spiked. Data thus far has not conclusively determined SB91 to be the cause of that, nor has the law been absolved, though legislative redress subsequent to its passage has attempted to fix errors in the initial implementation. In 2016, Alaska was named the most dangerous state in the country in an annual report from 24/7 Wall Street. The law — which hadn’t been fully implemented yet — was quickly pegged as the culprit. Dunleavy signed on as part of the resistance, listing repeal as a priority during his bid for governor.
“SB91 has made our crime problem worse,” he wrote on his candidate website. “I support a full repeal of the troubled policy. I voted against allowing SB 91 to become law.”
On Tuesday night, Dunleavy offered a glimpse at what the “replace” portion of his campaign pledge might look like — though no hints were offered regarding how to fund it.
“[W]e will expend the necessary resources for additional State Troopers, provide more local control, and more prosecutors,” Dunleavy said. “We will ensure that our courts will remain open five full days a week in order to hear cases. We will provide the focus and the resources necessary to combat the scourge of opiates and other illicit drugs driving up our crime rates and ruining lives,” he said Tuesday night. “A series of bills and initiatives to be introduced tomorrow will not only roll back SB91, but will help Alaska turn the corner to a safer tomorrow.”
“History will judge those of us in this room tonight on how we respond to this crisis,” he concluded.
About an hour after his remarks, press secretary Matt Shuckerow announced that the Dunleavy administration would unveil a “package of crime fighting bills repealing and replacing SB 91” Wednesday morning at a press conference. The governor will be flanked by Acting-Attorney General Kevin Clarkson, Acting-Department of Corrections Commissioner Nancy Dahlstrom, and various other members of the public safety team.
A notable omission from the speech entirely was education — usually a point of emphasis during State of the State speeches. Dunleavy only used the word once, in reference to his own time as a teacher. Despite this, at least one Democratic legislator lauded the governor for speaking on behalf of education. “What I heard tonight from Governor Dunleavy was that we share a commitment to safer communities and better schools,” Rep. Chris Tuck (D-Anchorage) said in a press release.
Much of the speech, like any other State of the State address, will have to wait until there is legislation to back it up.
“[W]e can’t evaluate the budget proposal outlined tonight by Governor Dunleavy until we get the actual numbers, which are due in three weeks,” Rep. Bryce Edgmon (D-Dillingham) offered. “Lawmakers need to see the actual budget proposal and the exact level and scope of cuts so they can judge for themselves whether they can support it or not.”