JUNEAU - Monday's inauguration marks a coming out of sorts for Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell, who spent his first 15 months in office in his predecessor's shadow but now feels the freedom to chart his own course. And he plans to seize the opportunity.
While Parnell's emphasis will remain on family and financial issues, he is bringing in a new team, including a 31-year-old adviser to lead the Fish and Game Department. His goal is to take his administration "to the next level."
He will also have a new lieutenant governor, Mead Treadwell, who will be charged with helping to develop an Arctic policy. Treadwell is a former chairman of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission.
"It does feel different, being able to assemble my own team," he told The Associated Press, noting the emphasis when he first took over, after Sarah Palin quit in July 2009, was on providing stability - which he believes he did.
He said he now has a much better understanding of what it takes to be governor, and that includes having a cabinet whose members have integrity and are able to carry out his policies.
Those policies will center on jobs and family, with the goal of building what Parnell calls a "legacy economy." It's a theme he's focused on since taking office, campaigning on it this fall en route to winning his election last month with 59 percent of the vote.
He wants to create a stable investment climate for businesses - particularly the oil and gas companies Alaska relies on heavily to line its coffers. He is proposing tax credits for harder-to-develop fields and tax cuts if companies are willing to publicly testify about how they'll invest here.
He had mixed results with oil-and-gas tweaks proposed last year, and his outgoing revenue commissioner has refused to say whether he believed the production tax - a hallmark of Palin's administration - should be touched. But Parnell believes he's on the right track, and that the Legislature would be standing in the way of jobs to oppose the ideas.
Parnell also said he intends to exercise fiscal discipline, even as the state sits on billions of dollars in reserves. He wants to hold agency spending levels down - he wouldn't say to what level - and veto any spending he considers excessive, as he did last year with the state infrastructure budget.
He hopes to build and expand on successes from his first year. For example, when it comes to education, he said he will again ask the Legislature to fence off $400 million to help generate scholarships for higher-performing students. The idea was spurned last year but he believes it has a shot this time, now that the program is better defined. He also wants to end the idea of "social promotion," and focus on improving literacy of grade-schoolers.
He also will propose updating stalking laws as part of his proposed 10-year crackdown on domestic violence and sexual assault. Lawmakers passed a suite of initiatives earlier this year aimed at curbing the problem, and Parnell wants to continue the work.
The greatest challenges facing Alaska are "assuring that we are positioned for economic growth and assuring that our families have opportunity," the 48-year-old Parnell said in an interview from his statehouse office, where pictures of his smiling family dot the walls. "You'll see that everything I do, everything I work to do, is focused on our economy and our people. That's who I am."
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