Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott (l.) and Gov. Bill Walker spoke briefly over the KCAW airwaves prior to their campaign visit to the Sitka Chamber of Commerce. Walker wants Alaskans to consider how the state has rebounded under his leadership — even the Permanent Fund Dividend, which he halved in 2016, is ticking back up. He told Sitka’s Chamber, “We chose not to kick the can down the road.” (Office of the Governor/Berett Wilber)

Gov. Bill Walker is pushing back hard against recent polling data that puts him in third place in the race for Alaska’s top job.

Walker and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott were in Sitka on Wednesday (10-3-18). The pair spoke at the luncheon meeting of the Sitka Chamber, where they defended their decision to stabilize Alaska’s economy, at the risk of their political future.

Downloadable audio.

The recent poll numbers from Ivan Moore’s Alaska Survey Research aren’t especially promising for Walker. He’s being hammered from the right about his decision in 2016 to reorganize the Alaska Permanent Fund, slash the dividend check sent out every year to Alaskans by half, to just over $1,000.

One member of the chamber audience brought it up, and asked Gov. Walker if he could put a $2,000 limit on the dividend.

“Because the state has had a lot of oil money, and this is our little dribble,” she said.

Walker’s defense for his administration’s approach to the dividend has been to play offense. He argues that the state’s budget was in such jeopardy that the permanent fund itself was at risk.

“And that’s why I made the decision — the most politically unpopular decision in the history of our state — to save that program,” Walker said. “Because saving that program was more important than saving me. So we have saved the dividend, it will be there for generations, no grandchild will be asking their grandfather ‘What happened to the dividend program?’ We had the guts enough to step up and fix it, and we fixed it. It will be there for generations.”

The dividend is creeping back up — it will be $1,600 this year, and likely higher next year — but Republican challenger Mike Dunleavy will spare no pains to remind voters that Walker took money right out of their pockets.

“Saving the Permanent Fund Dividend was more important than saving me. So we have saved the dividend, it will be there for generations, no grandchild will be asking their grandfather ‘What happened to the dividend program?’ We had the guts enough to step up and fix it, and we fixed it. It will be there for generations.” — Gov. Bill Walker

The pressure has pushed Walker, an independent, into third place, with 23- percent of voters willing to return him to office, behind Democrat and former US Senator Mark Begich at 29-percent, and former Alaska legislator Mike Dunleavy, at 44-percent.

In a separate visit to KCAW, Walker said that Ivan Moore is only one pollster, and he’s been wrong before.

“The poll we’re focused on is the one in November, on election day,” said Walker. “So we’ll stay focused on that.”

Walker is almost eerily plain-spoken in this era of political bluster, and — as his decision on the Permanent Fund demonstrates — he takes a longer view on problem-solving than we have come to expect from most politicians.

He’s established a track record over the last four years in office, and says he and Mallott are running on success.

“We’ve come a long way,” Walker explained. “When we took office, we lost 88-percent of our income. Our revenue plummeted. We chose not to kick the can down the road. We chose to fix it — not just to survive the recession, but we had to make the structural change so that gap was closed and we don’t visit again. So that’s what we did. Now that Alaska has a stable fiscal future, we have taken our dependency on oil from 90-percent to 30-percent. That’s a pretty significant shift. So now we’re not trying to make decisions about the quality of education based on the price of oil. So that’s a significant change for us. Now our bond rating has come back up, and it’s time to grow Alaska. We can get GO (General Obligation) bonds for deferred maintenance, we can go out and build infrastructure that we couldn’t do when we had a $3.7 billion hole in our budget.”

Alaska’s not experienced anything close to a boom while Walker’s been in office, but things are no longer in freefall. Just a month ago Conoco-Phillips vice-president Scott Jepsen told the Sitka Chamber of Commerce that his company had renewed its investment in the North Slope, and was projecting steady increases in production over the next decade.

Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott says the upswing is no coincidence.

“I think it is because they see now stability — fiscal stability — for the state moving forward,” he said. “We’re not completely there yet… The need to continue to develop North Slope resources is of course vital to Alaska’s future, both in terms of jobs and keeping our economy strong. And giving the state the revenues to diversify the economy overall, and take those revenues and invest them in economic opportunity and social growth all across the state.”

And because it was a Southeast campaign visit, both Walker and Mallott were boosterish on issues important to the region. Both told the Sitka Chamber that they support the principle behind the Yes for Salmon Initiative, and were committed to executing it should the initiative become law — but stopped short of endorsing it. On ferries, the Walker-Mallott team wants to explore removing the Alaska Marine Highway from the state Department of Transportation, and creating a separate board and governance structure — and see the system revitalized. And on the Pacific Salmon Treaty, Gov. Walker apologized directly to a table full of salmon trollers that he signed a ten-year agreement that they feel is a byproduct of politics rather than  of science, and an “an unmitigated disaster” (in the words of fisherman Matt Donohoe).

Walker said that he hadn’t been governor for two weeks when someone advised him to “run from fish.” He responded to Donohoe that the stakes in stopping or rejecting the treaty were huge, and he wants to take the fight to the next level.

“Let’s not stop at where we are today,” Walker said. “Let’s continue on a congressional basis, and open it up in such a way that it’s fair, based upon better science, and not a ten-year sentence.”