Gov. Mike Dunleavy delivered his fifth State of the State address on Monday night, seeking to paint a considerably more moderate and affable governor as he sets out on his second term. With several attempts at humor that we haven’t seen before, the Republican hit many of the conservative talking points about crime waves and environmental extermists, but weaved in enough broadly popular talking points that the entire chamber was clapping at the applause lines more often than not.
“I think there’s been a real sea change in the governor,” said Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, during the Senate Majority’s response following the speech. “In my estimation, the governor is more comfortable with being governor.”
It turns out people like you when you do things that people like.
As for concrete proposals in the speech, there weren’t many. Dunleavy called for higher sentencing minimums for drug dealers (noting that fentanyl isn’t like “your grandparents’ marijuana”); continued spending to fight the federal government; food security; and a proposal to extend postpartum Medicaid coverage for children and mothers from 60 days to 12 months. On the economic development front, he called for an ad blitz to sell the benefits of the state to the Lower 48.
Education didn’t get much of a mention other than to recognize the narrow passage of the Alaska Reads Act in 2022, which Senate President Stevens noted as a missed opportunity. Dunleavy’s speech followed a rally on the Capitol steps in favor of increased K-12 eudcation funding, a priority for the Senate that doesn’t seem to have much enthusiastic buy-in from either Dunleavy or the Republican House.
Perhaps the oddest moment of the night was when Dunleavy proclaimed that he wanted to make Alaska “the most pro-life state in the country.”
“You see, like many of you, I happen to like people and, more importantly, we need more people in Alaska, not less. We need more people in our jobs, we need more people in our schools, we need more people who create wealth, we need more people solving Alaska’s problems and the world’s problems, we need more families achieving the American dream,” he said. “I know this may sound strange to some but we have to make it OK again to have families, put a family together and have children.”
It wasn’t an overt anti-abortion message that called for the constitutional amendment to rewrite Alaska’s right to privacy, but instead seemed like a try-out for rebranding the pro-life movement to tie-in to more broadly popular issues that make places livable like good schools and job opportunities.
In the Senate Majority’s response, Senate Majority Leader Cathy Giessel noted that she would still expect the governor to push forward with a constitutional amendment to outlaw abortion based on his reiteration of the “pro-life” message, but she and other legislators noted it faces an uphill battle requiring 2/3rds of each chamber.
“I personally would not,” Giessel added.
Why it matters: In all, though, it’s hard to overlook the backdrop of everything. The governor’s last four years haven’t exactly met whatever definition this new pro-life movement seems to have. Alsaka’s food stamp program has faced a massive backlog that’s left families without access to the help that’s sitting right there for months, which just last week generated a lawsuit saying they exposed thousands to hunger risk. That’s on top of cuts to education, the university system, several social safety net programs, and many, many other things that legislators hoped would make the state more livable.
Perhaps the governor has turned a page and all the things he’s steadfastly opposed over the last four years are back on the table, but as Sen. Bill Wielechowski said during the majority response:
“The devil’s in the details.”