A policy framework to determine Alaska’s future and invest in ourselves

Alaska’s immense natural beauty is unrivaled. We also possess unmatched natural resources beneath our feet and all around us which create endless opportunities for people to thrive here for the next ten thousand years. Whether it’s fishing and hunting, our $80 billion sovereign wealth fund, petroleum reserves and mineral deposits, all the elements needed for large-scale renewable energy operations, or trails and wild open spaces that attract millions of tourists each year, Alaska is truly the land of opportunity.

However, opportunity alone is only unrealized potential. It is our responsibility as Alaskans to act as good stewards of our lands, oceans, and natural resources to ensure that people today and generations from now are able to build successful lives here and that can only happen with a functioning and growing economy, something we haven’t had for years. Alaska sits at 49th in the Top States for Business, just behind Mississippi.

We need a new vision. So much of what we love about Alaska is rooted in our outdoor spaces. But if we are going to reverse the decline of Alaskans leaving the state and kickstart our economy, we must invest in the things that make people love their cities, towns, and villages as much as they love their outdoors and build up our local communities. In order for this to happen, we must develop a clear direction for our state and maintain a commitment to responsible stewardship that is uninterrupted by election cycles, political disagreements, and other forms of short-term thinking and create vibrant, livable spaces where the spoils of a growing economy benefit everyone.

The Walker Drygas Administration is committed to achieving balance and stability in infrastructure and low-cost energy so that Alaskans can finally determine our own future rather than continuing to allow faraway economic and political forces take advantage of our internal division. On one hand, Alaska is treated as if it is a vacant land that should be locked up and protected from itself; on the other hand, some outsiders act like we are nothing more than a warehouse full of natural resources waiting to be exploited when the market requires.

When we talk about rebuilding Alaska, at the core, we are talking about policies that promote self-determination in how our state grows and changes, focus attention beyond our immediate challenges, and make it so people can build successful lives here. This document provides 8 specific policies we will pursue toward this end, and we encourage Alaskans to engage with us to provide big ideas that will get our state back on track.

1. Using federal funds to promote equity in Alaskan infrastructure

2. Support kids and families in Alaska from pre-K through UA

3. Address Alaska’s statewide housing crisis

4. Expanding “Alaska Grown” to promote an Alaska Aisle in every store

5. Establishing the Alaska Office of Outdoor Recreation

6. Enacting policies that promote year-round tourism

7. Chief Innovation Officer

8. Alaska 2050

1. Using federal funds to promote equity in Alaskan infrastructure

Regardless of how Alaska’s overall economy is performing at any given moment – based on traditional metrics like the unemployment rate, the price of oil, or the state’s growth domestic product – we will never be able to say that our economy is truly healthy until every single community has toilets that flush and other foundational infrastructure needed for everyone in our state to have a chance at participating in a strong economy without leaving their hometown. We must prioritize resources to level the playing field and make it so there is equity in Alaskan infrastructure.

The historic federal investment through the bipartisan infrastructure bill – championed by Congressman Don Young and Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan – provides a unique opportunity to make significant progress. The Walker Drygas Administration will leverage that one-time money by ensuring the State partners with Tribes and the Denali Commission to improve access to sewer systems, clean water, roads, and housing. We will also work to eliminate regulatory delays that increase the costs of construction across our state.

In short, we will:

  • Aggressively pursue the competitive infrastructure dollars at the federal level by coordinating efforts through an Office of Infrastructure that will sunset when funds are exhausted
  • Prioritize rural Alaska’s basic infrastructure
  • Coordinate the roll out of millions in funds to transform Alaska Marine Highway System for the future
  • Leverage Governor Walker’s experience in making Alaska’s case to federal policymakers

2. Support kids and families in Alaska from pre-K through UA

It’s impossible to build a strong economy without investing in our future in a meaningful way. Alaskans have seen the negative consequences of state leaders who attack the university system with a 44 percent cut instead of building it up, reduce K-12 funding until an election year, embrace the worst teacher retirement system in the country instead of making it better, and do nothing to improve the availability of childcare at the exact moment when that is one of the major factors holding our economic recovery back. We propose three core education policies to address these issues:

  • Childcare. We cannot speak about family values unless we also put our money where our mouth is. Childcare options are profoundly lacking in every community in our state. There is no easy or cheap way to solve this problem, but the state should act as a conduit to solutions and be open to the possibility of increased state incentives to childcare businesses.

    This could take the form of loan funds, capital investment funds, or direct incentives. We will form a Childcare Working Group that will prepare policy recommendations for the Legislature to consider in the first year of our administration. We will place four specific ideas on the table for a thorough review: 1. The possibility of finding a way for communities, Tribes, and businesses to pay for childcare workers to receive state health insurance and benefits as a tool to help with recruitment and retention of workers, 2. Expanding the availability of funding for direct childcare incentives throughout the state, 3. Explore repurposing vacant state buildings and facilities to host childcare services, and 4. Establish a Childcare Trust Fund to fund systematic approaches that creates living wages, increases benefits, and creates better training for businesses and employees while expanding childcare access for parents.

    We also propose working with the University of Alaska to create childcare apprenticeships that will help create a pipeline of highly qualified childcare workers who can look forward to a career of serving our most valuable resource. K-12 education. Alaskans today fully appreciate the harm inflation can inflict on individuals and institutions. Teachers and school administrators have known this for years. As policymakers grappled with budget shortfalls, flat-funding and short-funding of the amount the state sends to schools has become the norm.

    Of course, this approach to budgeting is actually a cut as the value of a dollar drops every year; even the modest election year increase to K-12 funding failed to keep up with the current high inflation. We must increase the base student allocation, and the first budget we introduce will increase the base student allocation so students, parents, teachers and school administrators will not have to worry about cuts and class size increases. We will also establish the Alaska Education Endowment, with the goal of funding pre-K through the University through revenues from additional resource development.

    Second, we must confront Alaska’s poor teacher retirement system and implement reforms that will be financially sustainable. For the first time in memory, teacher recruitment fairs this year were canceled and some school districts delayed opening because no one from out-of-state was showing up; this stands in stark contrast to the years when people all over the country competed for a job here because we valued education with good pay and the ability to retire. Bottom line: we are hemorrhaging teachers in Alaska. Bringing back competitive retirement benefits for teachers is a key part of solving the recruitment and retention issues that disrupt learning all over our state.

    Finally, we will oppose any effort to undermine the Alaska Constitution by directing public funds to be spent on private schools. School vouchers and similar programs simply will not work in a state where a vast majority of communities have just one school.

  • University of Alaska. The major challenge every employer in our state faces is recruitment and retention of workers.

    The University of Alaska, through its academic offerings from vocational and technical to bachelor’s to applied research, is the most important institution that prepares our kids for careers here at home instead of forcing them to leave the state because they can’t find a way to fit into our economy. It is also the greatest supplier of workers to build a growing, attractive workforce for outside companies. The current administration’s approach demonstrated what happens when you try to cut your way to prosperity: many people will leave, and we don’t attract new investment despite some saying we are “open for business” without any follow through. Alaska’s struggling economy and lack of progress in the pursuit of economic diversification can partly be blamed on the cuts to our university system.

    The Walker Drygas administration will work to keep our best, brightest, and hardest working young people here by championing three policies: 1. We will introduce a plan to forgive student loans taken out by anyone who completes a degree or trade school certificate here and stays and works in Alaska for at least five years. Alaska needs workers in every sector of our economy. People who complete any program will be treated equally, whether they earn a welding certificate or an advanced engineering degree to build up our state, a bachelor’s degree to educate our kids, complete a pilot training program, or anything else. 2. We will reject any additional cuts to our university system, and will work in particular to increase the number of spaces available for nursing students and the number of seats in the WWAMI Program. 3. We will re-establish core programs that produce employees the state needs the most like the Information Technology Program at the University of Alaska Anchorage, and we will invest in attracting students from across the country to participate in our distance learning degrees and programs.

    In short, we will:

    • Submit a BSA increase in our first budget proposal that combats the rise in inflation
    • Create and endow the Alaska Education Fund, funded by revenues from additional resource development
    • Reform the teacher pension system to ensure retirement benefits are finally competitive with the rest of the country
    • Increase the grants to childcare industry
    • Invest in keeping kids in Alaska after high school by forgiving debt for students who work and build lives here

3. Address Alaska’s statewide housing crisis

Quality, attainable homes are a keystone to growing the economy. If we want young people to stay, we need to be sure there are places for them to live and currently, availability of housing is a problem statewide. Nearly every community in Alaska is experiencing some degree of a housing crisis that makes it extremely difficult for young people to be able to afford to build a life here. Yet the issue of housing is not currently treated as the universal issue it is for Alaskans or confronted with the level of urgency it demands. To help address this complex issue, we will appoint an Affordable Housing Coordinator who will participate as a part of the Governor’s Cabinet. We will take four major steps to address this issue:

  • Statewide Housing Emergency Group.

    We will declare a Statewide Emergency on Affordable Housing and stand up a working group composed of a diverse group of stakeholders to finally confront this issue in a robust way that seeks solutions that will work in rural and urban communities for renters and home-owners. Alaska is already working on these issues through the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation and the Cold Climate Research Center, but leadership is required to bring new ideas to the forefront. Finally, the State of Alaska could help achieve solutions by obtaining local materials for local projects and bringing in supplies from out-of-state at scale in a way that brings down prices of the products needed to build here.

  • Investments to encourage housing solutions

    Our first budget will propose significant investments that encourage the construction of new homes in rural and urban communities, and we will work with legislators across the state and from every political background to make sure investments happen. One of the key targets of state funding will be initiatives that increase flexibility and allow for more efficient use of land. Alaska has an incredible opportunity through the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation to understand and tackle the issue and could include things like endowing funds to spin off earnings to help build new, affordable housing. We will also work to find ways to assist developers in bringing down the high costs of building in Alaska by searching for tax credit and cost reduction opportunities like kicking in to develop utilities or property access.

  • Eliminating bureaucratic hurdles

    Alaska’s tax code currently acts as a barrier to local initiatives that could encourage new housing developments. One example is in the Fairbanks North Star Borough, which is pursuing a 10-year property tax exemption for developers who build at least five units. State law strictly limits this sort of exemption. We will work with the Legislature to remove this kind of barrier, and we will also introduce legislation that would provide competitive grants to communities with the best ideas to address housing shortages. State law could also help incentivize building more dense housing, like four-plexes and accessory dwelling units (ADUs).

  • Explore statewide options for a Statewide Land Trust

    Alaska is one of only three states in the nation without a statewide land trust. Sitka has been at the forefront of working to turn the tide against housing affordability in their community with the Sitka Community Land Trust. In 2020, fair market rent for a three-bedroom was more than $1,800 and a 2020 rental market survey placed Sitka’s average total rent higher than any other area in the state. The Sitka Community Land Trust’s work is opening up the opportunity for Sitkans to own a home for more than $100,000 less than the average home price in Sitka.

    With around 300 land trusts in the country, the idea is that the land underlying homes is placed into a trust, and a small fee is passed onto homeowners. This drastically reduces the total cost of home ownership in Alaska. The tradeoff is that homeowners keep less of the total sales price of the home when they sell, helping to pass it on at less than fair market value to the next homeowner.

    The State has wide swaths of land it could make available for a Statewide Land Trust with the intention of reducing the cost of home ownership on those tracts, thereby creating a brand new opportunity for Alaskans to purchase their first home at affordable prices.

In short, we will:

  • Leverage the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation’s expertise and balance sheet to incentivize home building around the state
  • Eliminate bureaucratic hurdles to allow for new types of housing development
  • Consider creating a Statewide Land Trust to drastically reduce the price of homes in strategic parts of the state

4. Expanding “Alaska Grown” to promote an Alaska Aisle in every store

Alaska Grown is a tremendous success story. It was designed to increase consumer awareness and consumption of Alaska agricultural products, by Alaskans for Alaskans, and the brand continues to grow. We created an Alaska produce competition while in office amongst the grocery stores. It is time to supercharge this effort and take it to the next level by ensuring every major big-box store has an “Alaska Aisle” which highlights local businesses and products of all varieties–not products that look handcrafted but actually have a made in China label.

There’s no reason why every, Carrs Safeway, Fred Meyer, Walmart, and pharmacy in our state can’t have a dedicated space where Alaskans can buy products grown and created by their friends and neighbors on the shelf. This will help create jobs and provide a boost for local entrepreneurs.

5. Establishing the Alaska Office of Outdoor Recreation

Alaska has the greatest public lands anywhere in the world. Everyone who lives here enjoys our outdoor spaces in one way or another, and so do millions of visitors from across the country and beyond. As we continue to see our state’s tourism industry grow, we need to embrace our outdoor economy while also making sure that changes only happen on our terms.

While many state agencies and other stakeholders interact with our outdoor economy, the work is dispersed, and there is no connective tissue to align efforts and investments. This is why we will establish the Alaska Office of Outdoor Recreation. This Office will be modeled after a similar effort in the State of Colorado, which brings together a variety of stakeholders: hunters and fishermen, people who hike, bike, run, ski, and recreate in other ways in our parks and wilderness areas, executives from tourism companies, and officials from state and federal agencies, to name a few. Ultimately, the Office will serve as a central point of contact, advocacy, and resources for the many stakeholders who participate in the outdoor economy.

One of our priorities in this area is to build up trails in a way that benefits all Alaskans and enhances our relationship with nature. Here are some specific initiatives we support and will advocate through the Alaska Office of Outdoor Recreation:

  • We will support full funding of the Alaska Long Trail and remove any other barriers to completion of the effort to create a world-class route that will attract people from all over the world and also encourage investments into existing trails enjoyed by various user groups.;
  • Our budgets will provide funding for the construction of 100 new public use cabins across our state by 2025, and to increase investments in deferred maintenance to modernize the public use cabins we already have; We will follow the recommendations made in the Statewide Trails Investment Strategy, as outlined by the nonprofit organization, Alaska Trails;
  • We will propose a pilot program to test the viability of the Alaska Conservation Corps, which would recruit people to build up our trails and public infrastructure in exchange for state benefits and/or the forgiveness of student debt.

In short, we will:

  • Create and Office of Outdoor Recreation to create a statewide trails strategy and work to upkeep our trails and plan for new ones
  • Work through the Office of Outdoor Recreation to begin planning and construction of the Alaska Long Trail
  • Explore the viability of creating an Alaska Conservation Corps to keep Alaskans in the state with good job opportunities

6. Enacting policies that promote year-round tourism

Over the past few years, Alaska has experienced a significant influx of independent travelers who arrive in our state by plane. These visitors spend more time and money here than other tourists, and they can show up any time of year rather than only during summer. This increases economic activity in communities and leads to greater revenue for tourism companies, restaurants, and countless other small businesses.

Iceland provides a useful model: the country previously relied on 80 percent summer tourism until they developed Northern Lights tours and marketed other winter activities. Since then, their winter tourism trade has increased from 20 percent to 80 percent. Alaska can learn from Iceland’s success given our world class northern lights, skiing, and more.

The Walker Drygas Administration will pursue policies aimed at increasing the number of independent travelers visiting Alaska, with a particular focus on attracting winter tourists so that seasonal businesses can keep the lights on and provide jobs and entertainment in our communities all year.

First and foremost, we will make a robust investment in the Alaska Travel Industry Association and specifically direct some of the increased marketing dollars to promote the fact that residents of 40 countries are able to visit Alaska for 90 days without obtaining a visa through the Visa Waiver Program. The program was launched decades ago by the Department of State and Department of Homeland Security to allow foreign travelers where visa applications are rarely rejected to visit the United States without going through hassle of obtaining a short-term travel visa, which can be expensive and time-consuming. This should be a targeted selling point to residents of countries like Australia, France, Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom – all participants in the program – can easily jump on a plane and visit our state for world-class skiing, to watch the Northern Lights, or to visit a glacier and see ice caves.

We will also continue the work we did during our first term to promote Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport as a world-class destination, and we aggressively pursue the creation of new direct passenger flights from Asia and Europe; given the restrictions in international use of Russian airspace, Anchorage should be able to sell itself as a stopover destination that will allow airlines to continue their trans-Pacific and polar routes and to enable passengers to spend time in Alaska while on the way to or from the Lower 48. New direct flights have the added benefit of providing Alaskans with easily accessible international destinations.

In short, we will:

  • Invest in tourism marketing and target independent travelers who see Alaska as a year-round travel destination
  • Work with airlines, airport officials, and communities in Asia and Europe to achieve the creation of new direct flights
  • Promote the Visa Waiver Program to tourists as part of our effort to attract visitors from other countries who often choose destinations based on their access to visas

7. Chief Innovation Officer

There is a heightened sense of Alaska’s strategic location in the world, remote work is now a proven solution to some operational challenges, technologies like telemedicine have advanced tremendously in a way that improves healthcare access, and overall connectivity continues to improve. Each of these trends are in part attributable to challenges of recent years, but we are excited about this moment and all the possibilities they present for Alaska. The State of Alaska does not need to reinvent every wheel, but we will benefit from constantly improving, keeping up with technological advances, staying apprised of important trends, and implementing best practices.

This is why we will hire a Chief Innovation Officer, who will report directly to the Governor, and their primary responsibility will be identifying practical solutions and opportunities that benefit Alaskan residents and businesses, and helps the government serve Alaskans better and more efficiently.

This initiative is modeled after the many government bodies that have proven the benefit of a CIO and focus on innovation, including the Municipality of Anchorage.

8. Alaska 2050

Alaskans used to embrace bold slogans like North to the Future, and our leaders acted in a way that genuinely embodied that forward-looking spirit: completing some of the most ambitious infrastructure projects in history, taking innovative steps like establishing the Permanent Fund, and working toward a shared vision of building this place up for the benefit of people today and for future generations. Today, it’s almost as if we’ve forgotten how to lean into big ideas and future planning. We are more divided than ever, and we need to systematically bridge the divisions in our state and lift our heads to the horizon. This belief is one of the core reasons why we are running as Independents and embracing our Alaskan label over our growing partisan divide. It is also why we will promote establishment of an initiative called Alaska 2050.

The first major undertaking in the initiative will be modeled after a similar large undertaking of the State of Hawaii in 1970 called “Hawaii 2000” which brought together thousands of people across the State of all ages, cultures, professions, educational achievements, income levels, and in all communities at a historic inflection point in that state to establish a greater sense of unity about what people wanted to become by the turn of the century. We desperately need this approach in Alaska: neighbors sitting down and having tough conversations to build a foundation of mutual respect and understanding so we can chart a course into the future that is not reversed every four years but reaches far into the future and gets us thinking about what we are leaving for our children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and everyone who will love this place long after we are gone.

Planning for the future and establishing trust and deep relationships among people from different backgrounds is not a one-time, static activity. We must consistently put in the work and keep an eye toward the future, so the Commission will undertake a similar statewide engagement effort every 10 years. The Commission will also provide yearly reports to the Legislature and the Governor that enable policymakers to constantly seek the longview and the bigger picture as they make year-to-year budget and policy decisions.

Finally, the Commission will be tasked with exploring the creation of a permanent Future Studies program within the University of Alaska that is modeled after programs at the University of Hawaii and University of Houston that work to increase the quality and depth of forward-looking research available to policymakers.

Join the Walker Drygas team