Gov. Sean Parnell took aim at the federal government in his first State of the State address Wednesday night, saying federal actions - on endangered species protections, issues of land access, health care - "often seem at war with Alaskan interests."
It's a position that plays well in Alaska, a live-and-let-live state where the unemployment rate has reached its highest level in at least 17 years, and where the economy is almost wholly reliant on oil, gas and other natural resources. And it comes in an election year, with the Republican Parnell facing a potentially tough fight in his bid to win outright a job he inherited last summer when then-Gov. Sarah Palin abruptly resigned.
"We best realize statehood's promise and grow our economy when we determine our destiny, not Washington," he said in his address delivered to a joint session of the Legislature.
He called federal efforts, like those to expand protections for polar bears, "overreactive" and "job killers," comments that drew applause from the audience. He called proposed federal health care legislation bad policy that would force Alaskans to buy health insurance and diminish individual freedoms.
There was little new in what Parnell said - he's been a vocal opponent of what he considers federal encroachment. But the speech allowed him to take his message directly to Alaskans watching on statewide television.
He laid out an agenda for the state he describes as fiscally restrained, focused on family and pocketbook issues. His proposals include cracking down on what he calls the "epidemic" of sexual assault and domestic violence; investing $500 million over five years to improve roads and other infrastructure; providing scholarships for good students; and suspending the motor fuel tax residents pay for two years.
He said his deferred maintenance plan would provide Alaskans jobs. He urged lawmakers to pass it by March 1, the midst of a three-month legislative session that began Tuesday, so work could begin this summer, during Alaska's traditionally short construction season.
"Where the state of Alaska has enough money to get by, we ought to return some of it to the people," he said.
A budget report released this week said Alaska has more cash reserves than ever, nearly $10 billion. But legislative leaders have said they want to save money given the state's near-total reliance on oil revenue, forecasts of slumping production and continued uncertainty surrounding a long-hoped-for major gas pipeline.
Parnell said he shares their goal; he's owed much of the 8.5 percent increase in general fund spending in his $10.5 billion budget proposal to entitlements - Medicaid, education - and said he wants to limit to about 2 percent state agency operating budgets, less than they wanted.
Since taking office in July, Parnell has had fence-mending to do with state legislators who had an at-times prickly relationship with Palin, particularly after her failed vice presidential bid in 2008. Several legislators on both sides of the aisle have given Parnell, a former lawmaker himself, credit for reaching out to them, or even giving them a heads-up or a courtesy call when he's announcing a policy proposal.
His speech was generally well received by members of the Senate Majority, a bipartisan working group. Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, called it "quite outstanding in many ways," touching on themes, like fiscal conservancy, like education, that the coalition itself has raised.
Both House and Senate leaders have expressed interest in expanding Parnell's merit scholarship program to include those in need of help paying for college or technical schools. Senate Majority Leader Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, said he hopes there's an opening to "meld the best" of merit and needs-based proposals.
Ellis also said the state may do more in seeking to curb domestic violence, such as addressing substance abuse.