Editor’s note: The Juneau Empire will feature Q&A segments with candidates in statewide races leading into the next election. The following interview with Byron Mallott was held at the Empire’s office on Oct. 13. It has been edited for length.
Byron Mallott was barely old enough to buy a beer when he first stepped into politics. At just 22 years old, he became mayor of his hometown of Yakutat. He would later go on to work under former Govs. Bill Egan and Jay Hammond, including time spent appointed to the Permanent Fund Board of Trustees and CEO of the Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation. He sat down with the Juneau Empire on Monday to discuss why he’s running for Alaska’s highest office and what his administration’s stance would be.
Why are you getting into the race for governor?
While I feel that in many ways running for Governor is part of my continuing journey in Alaska, … it isn’t about me. It’s about everything I’ve learned, it’s about everything I’ve experienced and a continuing desire to work with Alaskans in order to make a good place that is … hopefully far, far better. We can dream bigger, we can act bigger. I’m anxious that we in Alaska work hard to come together as Alaskans. You know, we’re really another country in terms of our size, in terms of the magnificence, of the richness of this place that we call home. But in our population, we’re only the size of a relatively small city in any other part of our country and that, I think, gives us an incredible opportunity to do things in ways and to create opportunities, to look at things innovatively, to essentially carve a future in a place that can be incredibly beautiful for all of us. It’s a belief, it’s a sense that Alaskans can come together and make this place the best place on Earth. That’s why I’m running.
What do you think about education funding in Alaska?
The whole future of Alaska will ultimately be built and sustained on the kind of education that we provide for our children. I believe that education should be world class. I think that we should focus, as Alaskans, on education as one of our very highest priorities. I believe that education should begin as soon after birth, as a child begins to reach out and touch the world as the world touches him or her. I think that we should focus on the incredible diversity of our state and … what we’ve achieved and where we’ve come from in order to inform our educational system and make it uniquely Alaska, while still creating the best educational system in the world in terms of competition, in terms of preparing our citizens for the work world, but also preparing them for their life as citizens. I believe that the University of Alaska, for example, can be a world leader in Arctic policy, in the challenges that are before us in areas like climate change, that it can be a world-class leader in indigenous peoples in the Arctic and their contributions and their place and their uniqueness in our state. It’s the core of my belief.
What’s your stance on Senate Bill 21?
It’s a process that seemed to be very flawed. At least many Alaskans don’t understand it. Many Alaskans believe that the balance favors the oil industry. It resulted immediately in a petition effort to overturn it and that is very problematic. The oil industry is hugely important every single day in Alaska and to our future. We as Alaskans need to be engaged fully with that industry in order to maximize both the revenue available to Alaskans … and to be able to, over time, attract their investment in our state. That’s a careful balance and we need to work toward that.
How do feel about dipping into the Permanent Fund?
The Permanent Fund was created as a way to balance Alaska’s fiscal future, to put away some of the dollars that flow from Prudhoe bay, specifically, into a fund that at some unstated time in the future would be available to meet Alaska’s fiscal needs. In addition, the Legislature and the governors over a period of time have created other reserves to be used to meet Alaska’s revenue needs in times of shortfall.
We have some way to go before we can have a conversation about, for example, the size of Alaska’s dividend. I don’t believe that the dividend should ever go away. It’s a powerful way for … every single person in the state to be connected directly to our future and to feel the ups and downs and to understand that this unique source of wealth belongs to every single one of us. The Alaska Permanent Fund is crucial to our future.
As governor, what would be your stance be on subsistence?
Subsistence has been a long-term issue in Alaska that causes difficulty in the relationship between the state and the federal government. It causes difficulty in the relationships between Alaska Native people and their institutions and the state government. It has been an issue that many people, and I think rightfully, point to as a divisive one within our state and it needs to be addressed and it must be resolved. As governor, it is an issue that I would work hard to resolve. It is an issue that can’t be ignored.
What are your ideas about development in Alaska?
Alaska is really another country. It’s one of the most beautiful and resource-rich places on the face of earth. We have a small population. We have as a result the ability to benefit by development as it occurs in terms of jobs, in terms of hopefully continuing to diversify Alaska’s economy. Diversifying Alaska’s economy is so crucial to our future that it will be a strong focus of mine. We are also blessed with some of the most beautiful, pristine natural places, not just in our country but in our world. The federal government and the state government have already identified and preserved many of those areas. The forces that play between, for example, the environmental community and the business community and the development community in our state, often times as it is discussed and as it is acted out is treated as a zero-sum game- that someone has to win, that someone has to lose. I don’t believe that. I’ve been involved in many of these issues between development and maintaining sensitive, beautiful places in our state. There is always an opportunity to work together and to understand.
What we need to do is to continue to look at all opportunities, both to maintain the incredible natural beauty of this place while at the same time getting a strong, diversified community for every Alaskan.
What’s your stance on the Pebble Mine?
I think the Pebble Mine is an indicator of what I just mentioned. It’s a process where a project that seems to be occurring – and I say seems to be because there is scientific review underway – located in an area where many, many people, both in Alaska, in our country and worldwide, view as threatening. An open-pit mine, to me, is problematic, but again I want to converse with Alaskans. I want to go out to the Bristol Bay region and talk to the folks. I want to talk to the mining industry about the future that it sees in our state. The state government has an important role … and must have the ability to deal with industry, to deal with the people in the regions that are most affected. It has to have the ability to work effectively with the federal government, with our local governments. As we look to resource development in our state, we talk about SB 21, we talk about Pebble. Alaska itself, our government, needs to have world-leading regulatory and research and management capacity to fully serve Alaska’s interest in these very complex and difficult issues of regulating and permitting and even fundamentally allowing projects that are hugely controversial. I believe we don’t and that is something that my administration would make a priority, that Alaskans will believe and know that whatever we negotiate, whatever we permit, whatever we allow will be based upon the best science, will be based upon the most sophisticated technology, will be based upon our government having world class leadership and having the world class ability to make the best judgments for Alaska’s people. We aren’t there yet and we need to get there.
What’s your view of the relationship that Alaska should have with the federal government?
The federal government has a very significant role in Alaska, in many, many areas. In the military, in natural resource management, in land management, in making judgments about economics and environmental regulatory everything from our aviation systems to our transportation systems to our educational systems to our universities. There is probably not a single institutional or public responsibility in Alaska that is not influenced by the federal government, and that suggests to me that Alaska should have the best relationships possible with the federal government that allow us to achieve the best results. That doesn’t mean that we give in or cave in or even demonize the federal government. That is the worst possible kind of way to deal with such a powerful presence. It is an important relationship. It is probably the most important governmental and societal relationship that Alaska has is with its own federal government. And to have the best, but likely tension-laden, hopefully in a positive way, relationship with the federal government – it’s the way of our past and it’s going to be the way of our future.
Do you think Alaska should be open to taking the extra Medicaid money from Obamacare?
It’s not Obamacare. it’s the Affordable Care Act, passed by the United State Congress, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. To fight it or to use it as leverage in a larger political game is absolutely inappropriate, in my judgment. I’ll tell you one thing that I believe very strongly has nothing to do with being Democrat or being a partisan person. Even before I thought in those kinds of terms, I always believed that in the richest country in the world, in the most powerful country in the world, that every one of our citizens should have access to health care that keeps them healthy, that makes them better citizens, better able to meet their obligations to family, community and in the workforce. And I believe that passionately.