Gov. Bill Walker cites finances, not job performance, as the reason he fired most of his Washington office, and then decided to keep associate director Nathan Butzlaff, on the job.
“Well, we are in the biggest fiscal deficit we’ve ever been in as a state, and we’re looking at everything, as far as what changes can we make from a fiscal standpoint that make sense for Alaska and to be able to cut the budget where we can,” Walker said in a phone interview. “And so it’s in that vein we have looked at ways to handle the D.C. office differently than we have in the past.”
Shrinking the Washington staff saves $400,000 a year. Butzlaff will keep the associate title but will get a 10 percent raise, to just over $167,000 a year. Kip Knudson, whose last day as director of state and federal relations is today, made more than $200,000 a year. The office, which until recently had five positions, now has two.
Walker says he, the lieutenant governor, and senior cabinet members will visit more to supplement the efforts of the smaller staff. Walker says they’ll still have the manpower to do the detailed work of the office, like discussing technical points with federal staffers as they draft permits and regulations.
“We will continue to evaluate our fiscal situation and see if there’s more we can do with our D.C. office than our current plan right now,” Walker said, although he also said he does not consider the current plan an interim solution.
The newly unemployed Knudson says he’s happy for Butzlaff, and researcher Amy Dobson who is also staying on. But Knudson says it won’t be easy.
“The governor’s going to have to prioritize because it’s impossible to cover D.C. with five staff,” Knudson said, “and it’s certainly a lot harder with two.”
Most governors do have an office and their own representative in Washington. Back when Congress doled out earmarks, the offices did a lot of their work with Congress. Now, with less legislative action on Capitol Hill, the focus has shifted to the White House and the agencies.
Washington lobbyist C.J. Zane, a former chief of staff to Alaska Congressman Don Young, says with the Obama administration heading into its final stretch, it’s a critical time for Alaska.
“The last year (or) year and a few months, of any administration, things start to change. There becomes a priority to try to get things done before the administration is finished,” Zane said in an interview last month. “So it creates this circumstance where both good things, beneficial things, can happen — because people want to have that be part of their legacy, for instance. But it’s also a time when really bad and crazy things can happen if you’re not fully engaged.”
Alaska always has a raft of natural resource issues pending in the agencies, and some Alaskans fear Obama might create a national monument in the state on his way out the door.
Walker, from the start of his term, made it a point to engage with Washington in person. He had an Oval Office sit-down with Obama within days of becoming governor, and multiple meetings with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. And when Obama came to Alaska this summer, Walker flew with him on Air Force 1. Walker also paid $50,000 to consult with former Obama aide Pete Rouse to prepare for his time with the president.
Larry Persily, who worked as an associate director in the Washington, D.C. office when Sarah Palin was governor, says previous Alaska governors relied heavily on lawsuits to deliver their message to the feds.
“Walker’s made it clear he wants to get away from constant litigation and wants to see what you can get by getting a more positive relationship with the executive branch, with the admin, with White House officials,” Persily said.
As for Knudson, he says he doesn’t know what his next job will be, but he planned to spend his first day of unemployment on the golf course.