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The Dunleavy disaster

  • Author: Terrence Cole
    | Opinion
  • Updated: February 19
  • Published February 19

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy speaks to reporters as his administration rolls out his budget plan in Juneau, Alaska, Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019. Gov. Dunleavy's budget proposal includes deep cuts to public education, the university system, Medicaid and Alaska's ferry system. The budget plan also eliminates state support for public broadcasting and proposes changes in petroleum property tax collections that will benefit the state but affect areas like the North Slope Borough. The director of Dunleavy's budget office, Donna Arduin, is pictured on right. (AP Photo/Becky Bohrer)

The proposed budget recently released by the Dunleavy administration reflects a stunning level of ignorance about the realities of Alaska history, geography, politics and economics. It is a preposterous proposal, maybe the single worst policy pronouncement to ever come out of the mouth of an Alaska governor dating back to 1884, and we have had our share of bad governors. This is ludicrous speed all the way, demonstrating a gross misunderstanding of the hard realities of Alaska life.

The budget could hardly be any more ridiculous if it repealed the law of gravity, required all clocks to run backward and ordered the spoon to run away with the moon.

Dunleavy’s chief architect of the proposal, Donna Arduin, is just-off-the-plane from the Lower 48, the type of tourist surprised to learn we use American dollars, who doesn’t know the difference between Seward and the Seward Peninsula, and wants to see the aurora in the summertime. She has only been here for two months and is already proposing the elimination of public institutions and programs that for generations — long before Prudhoe Bay — have been fundamental to our social, political and economic infrastructure. What cannot be overstated is the radical nature of the administration’s outlandishly incompetent recommendations. It’s as if a cadre of right-wing Bolsheviks from the Third World have taken over the third floor of the state capitol, intent on the destruction of the 49th state.

These enormous cuts all seem to have been made with a laziness and lack of curiosity and concern about the people of our state that is beyond belief. The best metaphor I have heard so far is that the governor’s team learned the lazy man’s way from the Walter Sobchak School of zero-based budgeting: No matter what department, the answer is always the same: “Mark it zero!”

Ignorance of historical Alaska conditions is baked into virtually every aspect of the Dunleavy budget. Most of all it fails to acknowledge what most Alaskans instinctively know, which is that by necessity, things are done differently here. With our relatively small population spread across an area twice the size of Texas — or the size of Texas, California and Montana combined — rules made for the Lower 48 don’t apply. We have unique and costly challenges built into our state’s history and geography that are never going to fit the national norm.

For example, take roads and transportation. We have the least developed and most costly transportation infrastructure among the 50 states, and that means what works in Michigan and Illinois, where Arduin comes from, is impossible here. Are there any communities in any of the Other 49 not on a road system of some sort? We have hundreds of such examples. In Illinois, the Chicago metropolitan area alone has about 10 times as many miles of paved roads as the entire state of Alaska.

When Alaska achieved statehood in 1959, the genuine fear was that a state with so many square miles and so few roads, industries and people would never be able to support the cost of state government, and that was why the statehood act includes extra provisions that let Alaska enter the union under the most generous terms imaginable. Alaska was, from the beginning, a different kind of state, where the state government would by design and necessity always have to play an oversized role. It was not socialism, but by careful intention it was not pure capitalism either. This was what Wally Hickel called the “Alaska Solution,” where the state government would manage the resources owned in common by all of the people through their state government, and use the proceeds to pay the extra costs inherent in such a difficult environment to build a state. The Permanent Fund and the Permanent Fund dividend program are just two examples of this unique arrangement, which has never existed anywhere else in the United States.

By some measures, the discovery of oil made Alaska the richest state in the history of the United States, so much so that no individuals in Alaska have paid any individual state taxes for almost 40 years now — not a single penny. This incredible run of good fortune, exemplified by the PFD program — the costliest part of the annual state budget — has disguised the fragile nature and narrow base of the underlying Alaska economy. Those who don’t know the history of Alaska, as appears to be the case with the governor and his entire team, fail to understand the irreplaceable role of the state government in making our state viable. Apparently Dunleavy can see nothing but dividends, a gross neglect of his responsibilities as governor.

Unlike normal budget proposals, the Dunleavy-Arduin plan is so unrealistic it is not in any way a rational basis to start negotiations. Like arguing with a Holocaust denier or a flat-Earther, debating the Dunleavy plan is a hopeless dead end. We cannot be held hostage by this nonsense. Even pretending the Dunleavy budget has some value distorts the situation irreparably — as if, for example, keeping half of the state ferry system, instead of abolishing it almost entirely as the governor recommends, would be some kind of grand concession, or thinking the University of Alaska will be fortunate if it shuts down only one campus instead of two.

The Legislature, in order to fulfill its constitutional role as an equal branch of government, must disregard the entire document and come together to start building a genuine budget on its own. Legislators not up to the challenge need to follow the proverbial instructions to get out of the way, lest they be accomplices in this Dunleavy disaster.

Terrence Cole has written five books about Alaska history and is an emeritus professor of History and Arctic and Northern Studies at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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