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 Gov. Sean Parnell was held at the Empire’s office on Jan. 7. It has been edited for length.
Sean Parnell took office as Alaska’s governor in 2009 after Gov. Sarah Palin resigned. Before being taking the office of lieutenant governor in 2006, he served in the Alaska House of Representatives for two terms and another term in the Alaska Senate. Parnell also worked as the director of government relations for ConocoPhillips and as an advisor on major oil and gas projects for the lobbying firm Patton Boggs. In 2008, Parnell challenged U.S. Rep. Don Young for his seat, but narrowly lost the primary. In 2010 he successfully campaigned to keep his seat as governor. He sat down with the Juneau Empire Tuesday to discuss his time as governor and what he hopes to accomplish if re-elected.
Some, including former Gov. Frank Murkowski, have called for cutting TransCanada out of the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act pipeline deal. You said last month when discussing the budget that you were frustrated with the pace of the project. Is cutting ties with TransCanada an option for you?
You’ve got to have a pipeline builder who knows how to build a pipeline and how to operate a pipeline — that’s TransCanada. There are two pipeline companies in this country that know how to build pipelines in the Arctic and TransCanada is the pre-eminent pipeline builder and operator in North America, so they’re still in.
Alaska’s interests were just maximized by passage of House Bill 4 in the last legislative session. We empowered the Alaska Gasline Development Corporation to carry Alaska’s interests in a gas line. So, right now, we have producers, we have a pipeline builder, we have a State of Alaska corporation that can carry Alaska’s interests in a pipe.
The next question is: Do we have an agreement, a road map where all these parties are moving together? If that comes together, which I believe it will very shortly, I will introduce legislation that more formally authorizes state participation in a gas pipeline.
We’re in a place historically where we’ve never been, where the producers of the pipeline and the state are aligned on a project. Even if that doesn’t go forward, the AGDC is going forward with its open season on a small-volume line to bring Alaska’s gas to Alaskans. We not only have parties aligned on a big project, we also have an alternative, a safety valve, in case that one doesn’t work. Alaskans have never been so well positioned as they are today.
You have to ask the critics, “Who else would build a pipeline in Alaska?” They are the pre-eminent pipeline builder in America, bar none. It takes a broad consortium of parties to make a gas line like this happen. That state on its own can’t do it. We’re going to have to hire a pipeline builder.
What are some of the criticisms that you feel have been unfairly launched toward Senate Bill 21?
I just think the More Alaska Production Act and the criticisms against it represent two different views of the world and I respect another view. My view of things is that we had a choice to make — either we could choose to continue guaranteed production decline or we can make ourselves competitive and go after more production and more production means more opportunity for Alaskans.
How do you respond to criticisms that SB 21 doesn’t require anything of the oil companies?
If you have a bank that pays you 2 percent for your $100 in savings and a bank that pays you 1 percent, it’s true that you’re not forced to put it into the 2 percent bank, but any smart person is going to go to that place that pays 2 percent. That’s Econ 101.
You cannot force new capital to come to the state when they have choices all around the world for that capital. Instead, we have to be the place that is competitive with everybody else.
In the past, lawmakers have considered the idea of an endowment for education in Alaska. Like our Permanent Fund, it could be averaged over five years and would provide some certainty in education funding. You’ve mirrored the idea with your scholarship fund. Why haven’t you proposed such an idea for K-12 funding?
I actually am one of the key proponents for forward funding on education and have maintained that in our budgets; so, not only the current year is funded but also next year is funded. That is the closest thing to an education endowment that the state has ever had.
When it comes to creating a sustainable funding source for education, you’re right, we did that with the Alaska Performance Scholarship so we don’t have to drain general fund dollars every year.
The question certainly is something I’d be open to consider, certainly with legislators. I think, however, before we speak to pure funding issues we also need to address structural issues in the education system.
When heating prices went up, we looked at the list of every district and said, “You’re right, every school district right now is facing increased fuel costs.” The total of that was about $25 million and we added $25 million to the budget and said “That’s something we know the public is getting a result for with their money.” They are paying for increased energy costs. So, before we talk about how to fund education, separate and apart from everything else, I think it’s important to figure out what we’re buying and that’s been the focus of my efforts and the legislature’s efforts.
What do you think would be the negative impacts if you said we’re going to figure out a better funding formula first? We can estimate whether the Permanent Fund Dividend will be high or low in advance.
Number one, education is one of the highest priorities for funding. It’s a constitutional mandate; we’re demonstrating it’s a high priority by forward funding it. There are very few programs that you can say are forward funded.
Secondly, if someone proposes to endow all of education, you’re talking about something akin to an investment that throws off in excess of $1 billion a year to do that. What is that going to take? It’s going to take an endowment of, say, $10 billion or $15 billion to throw off enough earnings to accomplish this purpose and I think Alaskans will need to question that and certainly we’ll question that before we go down that path.
In 2001, Gov. Tony Knowles said he would not pursue the Katie John case. Last year, just days after you addressed the Alaska Federation of Natives convention, you announced that the state would be appealing the decision to the Supreme Court. Knowles words in 2001 were, “We must stop a losing legal strategy that threatens to make a permanent divide among Alaskans. Let today be the beginning in closing the urban-rural divide.” Do you agree with the sentiment that Knowles expressed when he said the state would not be appealing the case?
I agree with the sentiment. I think time has borne that statement to be false.
I very much support and acknowledge subsistence as part of a person’s life and culture and who they are as a person, that’s not at issue, but because of the failure to get clarity in the law back then during the time that you mentioned, we actually now have Katie John III and Katie John IV and Katie John V and what that leads to is more division and more hurt between the Alaska Native population and others.
I say that because now based upon the doctrines that have arisen under Katie John I, II and III at the appeals court level, not at the Supreme Court level. This last court just said because of the kind of questionable precedent of the past, we have to make this up as we go; we have to have a case-by-case look. What that means is that for every river, for every stream that touches or crosses federal lands for decades to come, there will be litigation on this issue because there’s been no certainty or clarity in the law from the court.
I’m not talking about certainty on whether subsistence exists or not. I acknowledge that is a part of our people here. What I’m talking about is legal certainty of what the boundaries are for all parties and as long as there’s an opportunity to fight over those boundaries, there will be division among the races. That is not something I can abide by. That is not something I can live with. In order to get that legal certainty on what the boundaries are for everybody involved we did appeal, and that’s why I took that approach.
Do you think that clarity will benefit subsistence users?
Clearly, because it’s knowing what the boundaries are that gives everyone more certainty. To me, that’s a positive thing.
How do you, in the grand scheme of things, envision subsistence for people in Alaska?
I think it comes down to respect among people and among cultures. I think if we have leadership that will acknowledge that we’re each uniquely created, and that we each bring to the table our different cultures and traditions, and we’re each entitled to equality before the law, then that’s where we start. If you can’t start there then you don’t have a basis to work together.
At some point does this involve more intensive cooperation with the federal government?
The answer is yes, that would be ideal. We have that dual management role with the federal government but the federal government has not viewed us as a partner or manager in that. They have taken the approach that it’s their way or the highway. That’s been the most difficult part of the relationship, is how the federal government has treated not only Alaska Natives in this, but the State of Alaska as an entity as well.
Data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report shows a slight decrease in forcible rape in Alaska from 2005 to 2008. In 2009 the rate increases and by 2012 we’re back to nearly the same rate we had in 2005. Your Choose Respect campaign was introduced in December 2009 yet rates have increased. How do you explain this?
Anytime you pull the lid off of a den of snakes, which is what lifting the lid on the evil of domestic violence and sexual assault is, anytime you do that, reported incidences are going to go up. I actually count that as a good thing that more people are reporting assaults, rapes than before.
When we started the Choose Respect initiative, we were told (we) will have more people, that (our) numbers (were) going to shoot up for the fist three to five years because more people are going to get the courage to come out of domestic violence situations and go to shelters.
To me, one rape is too much and seeing the numbers go up, to me, I think, can be explained in part by more people are getting the help they need and are coming forward. Do I like to see it? No, it’s hard.
The Choose Respect initiative is a three-pronged approach; it’s prevention, it’s intervention and it’s support services. You can not tell me that having 60 more village public safety officers, or 60 more communities with a VPSO in them that had no law enforcement presence before, you can not tell me that community’s safety hasn’t been enhanced. Instead of having to wait three days for law enforcement help, they can get help in a matter of minutes. That statistically drops crime in those communities and makes for safer communities.
We are now up to almost 160 communities that hold Choose Respect rallies and people talk in their communities and actually step forward as victims and survivors of this. That gives courage to others to step forward and we’re seeing that.
If you look at my budget this year, my sense is there are millions of more dollars toward prevention as well. The VPSOs are part of intervention, but the prevention element also has millions of dollars of new money that weren’t there before. There are increases every year in this fight against domestic violence and sexual assault.
Is there enough? There’s never enough. There’s never enough to solve this problem. If I could write a check for a billion dollars and eradicate domestic violence and sexual assault form Alaska I would do it, but we have to take a broader shot at it and we’ve increased funding for this initiative across prevention, across intervention and for more support services as well.
In November you announced that the State of Alaska would not expand Medicaid with federal dollars from the Affordable Care Act. How do you think the approach to have more state-based solutions for Medicaid is going make Alaska better off than if the state had accepted the expansion money?
Because rather than parachuting a bunch of money, a bunch of federal dollars, that we and our kids will have to pay for years to come, that we’re borrowing from China to do, rather than parachuting a bunch of money into a system that doesn’t benefit the working class of our state but instead makes them poorer, we will target our approach to public health to the areas where there are gaps and meet the needs of Alaskans who need it.
Clearly, impoverishing more Alaskans over time to pay for a system that is less than ideal is something that we shouldn’t be doing, as demonstrated today by rising health care costs, rising insurance costs, people losing their insurance policies and all of that. That’s the Obamacare tax on Alaskans to pay for this expansion of Medicaid. If more states would not expand Medicaid, we’d have that (much) less debt in the future to be paying. It’s a problem for everyone right now.
How do you respond to criticism that Alaska is going to be paying for it anyway? We’re not getting a break because we’re not participating. Alaska is already paying for the Affordable Care Act, we’re just choosing not to participate.
I don’t buy that argument, because that assumes that Alaska is not getting back more than we’re paying in. We already get back more in federal dollars than Alaskans pay in federal income taxes, so it’s not like other people are going to use Alaska’s money in their state for Medicaid expansion. Really, what this is about is deepening the financial unsustainability for our federal government and laying it on the back of our kids and grandkids, and that’s something I wasn’t going to participate in with the Medicaid expansion.
If you are re-elected do you intend to run for another political office, either during your final term or after?
At this point I’m focused on running for governor. I don’t have dreams or aspirations of serving anywhere else.
Why should you be re-elected?
I think I have a record of strong, steady leadership that has put Alaskans on a trajectory for economic growth and for greater opportunity. I want to continue that direction and I want to continue further embedding policies that give Alaskans more opportunity, both in the economy as well as through other means. That’s the short version.
Every policy I pursue is about clearing paths of opportunity for Alaskans, whether it’s the Alaska Performance Scholarship creating that path of opportunity for them to earn scholarships for post-secondary education or whether it’s speaking with small business owners in Juneau who are concerned about cruise line company vendors directing their customers away from local businesses, and I meet directly about cruise line execs about that problem and our Department of Law takes on the issue and we stand up for small businesses here in Juneau.
Alaskans know that I’m on their side working to create opportunity for them. That’s what I want to continue doing for the next four years.