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Editors' Picks Government Officials Interviews National

An Interview with Bill Walker, Independent Governor of Alaska

Bill Walker, the only independent American governor, is known for his bipartisanship on key issues and his willingness to work with politicians of both major parties.

Before his conversation with The Politic, Governor Walker noted that Alaska’s high health care costs are the product of a unique situationAlaska’s population of fewer than one million is spread across a geographic area that is equal to one-fifth of the continental U.S. He also emphasized the especially important role of governors in a tumultuous time for the federal government.

The Politic: What are the particular challenges faced by states, such as yours, that must grapple with the challenge of rural health care?

Bill Walker: In some states, like Rhode Island, for example, it’s probably not a very long ride to the local hospital. That ride might be only three or four hundred dollars. In Alaska, if you have a medical emergency, it will require a medevac, most likely, because 80% of our communities are not connected by roads. It would require a medevac, an airplane or a jet of some sort, or a helicopter, and that trip to the hospital could cost between fifty and one hundred and fifty thousand dollars. The nature of our state has a big big impact on our hospitals.

Is there anything that you have an eye on in other states that seem to have worked particularly well that you’d like to try to implement in Alaska?

Well, you know, we’ve looked at ways of bringing in additional insurance carriers and having more competition in that area. Then again, our insurance rates are largely driven by our cost of health care. You know, there really isn’t another state like Alaska. Every other state is connected by roads much more so than we are. It’s really hard to find something, which goes well somewhere else, that would work well in Alaska, particularly because most of the cost savings are designed around a larger population base and a more condensed area.

It seems as if you’ve had considerable success with bipartisanship in Alaska in a lot of areas but particularly in healthcare. I am wondering what you think some sort of bipartisan model could be in working out the health care debate?

We’re not searching for the most Republican answer or Democratic answer. We’re looking for the answer that’s best for Alaska and I don’t think any party has the monopoly on solutions. That’s why I like the luxury of working not across party lines—there are no party lines in my world. We have 60 Alaska legislators in Juneau that I work with, so I don’t do it on party bias or party input. The second thing is the advantage I’ve had as the only nonpartisan governor in these 50 states is that I’ve been able to work with each administration without any sort of potential tension, I guess I’ll put it that way, I’ve certainly been able to work with the Obama administration and last week I was invited to the White House with three other governors to meet with the President to talk about energy issues and energy projects. So I’m a bit of a free agent when it comes to working with other elected officials that may or may not be in a partisan tradition.

Speaking of the environment, I’ve noticed that you’re often lauded for a pragmatic mix of traditionally more conservative and traditionally more liberal values and I was wondering how you were able to bring that mix to dealing with issues of the environment such as climate change and energy policy?

Well, it’s actually not that difficult because I don’t want to do anything that’s going to create an environmental problem, but, on the other hand, we are a resource state. We have to live off the resources being developed and being developed responsibly so we can’t just go back and say we don’t want to develop any resources because that’s not smart financially. It’s a bit of a fine line, I guess, but, on the other hand, we are a resource state and we want to be responsible.

I was wondering, in terms of preserving your natural resources and dealing with the effects of climate change, what steps are you taking now and what steps do you anticipate having to take in the near future?

You know, we are on the front lines on climate change, in some respects. We see the impact of not having the sea ice in the fall. The storms can come in and the sea ice would act as a wave barrier so to speak. We don’t have that as much as we did before—some of our villages are really washing away. The continental U.S. has 6,000 miles of coastline and Alaska has about 6,600 miles of coastline so we’re definitely impacted by climate change without question. When the oil comes out of the ground, natural gas comes out as well and we inject that natural gas back into the ground into the reservoir. We’ve been doing that for 40 years so now it’s time to monetize that, take it to market. Our largest market opportunity is in Asia and, I don’t have the exact number, but I believe it’s about 25 million tons a year of CO2 emissions would be eliminated by introducing natural gas into the Asian market. So, that’d be a pretty significant impact on CO2 emissions.

I saw that you recently met with the new President of South Korea to discuss exporting there.

Yes, I met with President Moon last week in Washington with the delegation that met with President Trump and we had a good meeting with him and also I had a good meeting with China’s President Xi when he came to Alaska in April, I believe it was. We have a good dialogue and exchange sort of government to government with the market countries of that region and Alaska.

Before we finish, we have a few informal questions to ask you. Firstly: if you weren’t in your current job, what would you be doing?

We have a law firm that we sold when I became governor so I’d probably still be active and involved in our law firm and, most likely that’s what I’d be doing, or I’d be out at my cabin chopping up wood and getting for visits from my grandchildren. Lots of fishing opportunities in the summer. I’d probably be catching a little more fish than I am now because I don’t have the time.

Where do you get your news?

For years, Alaska has had an office in D.C., a sort of internal clipping service. They provide information about the world and the state. When it’s 8 AM in Alaska, it’s 12 PM on the East Coast, my team gets a briefing.

Which living person do you most admire?

My bride of 40 years, Donna Walker.