Alaskans are increasingly worried about how to build the best possible future for families here at home. Gov. Mike Dunleavy and his administration have come out of the gate doubling down on headline-grabbing budget cuts rather a comprehensive, realistic plan that will put us on track to long-term fiscal stability.
I have heard some Alaskans say they are surprised by the governor’s extreme cuts – like stopping the marine highway system this fall or cutting education by more than 23%. The truth is, everything Gov. Dunleavy said (or didn’t say) on the campaign trail pointed to this scenario. He made it clear that his top priority would be to deliver larger Permanent Fund dividends to Alaskans – at literally any cost.
Throwing out an extreme budget just to frighten people is not leadership, and it does not move us any closer to solving our serious, long-term economic problems. In addition to causing angst here at home, this approach puts the private sector on alert and causes potential investors to think twice about spending their money here in Alaska.
Are we facing a series of tough choices? Absolutely. But there is a better way to lead the state to opportunity. The governor could have presented his budget alongside an alternative budget (even if he didn’t support the details within it), just as George Wuerch did as mayor of Anchorage during tough times. This approach helps demonstrate what it would take to keep all of the things that no one wants to give up. This approach would also allow decision-makers in Juneau to have an honest conversation, amongst themselves and with the public, about what a true compromise would look like and help find the best path forward.
I know Alaska is poised for a bright future. From longtime successful businesses to exciting entrepreneurs trying new things, Alaska is home to the most dedicated and innovative workforce. These are the people I meet and interact with every day while running my own businesses. And after 40 years in the private sector and building businesses here in Alaska, I continue to believe that our best days are still ahead of us.
If we focus on the fundamental priorities that have built Alaska -- support for education, public safety, smart investments and development, protecting our environment, and taking care of those who are most at risk, there will never be a limit on what is possible here in Alaska. But if we want more business to come to Alaska, it will require providing these basic services and showing we are serious about long-term fiscal stability. The path to opportunity is up to us.
We must deal with the Permanent Fund dividend and get it off the bargaining table. That is why I have supported a constitutional amendment to protect the PFD with a responsible formula to ensure it is there for future generations. I know many of my friends on the left will disagree with this, but we must also figure out a more modern, efficient mechanism to deliver government services. I believe this can be done without stopping the marine highway system in September or slashing education so far back that parents will wonder if they will have access to a quality education for their kids. And we need to have a consistent, predictable capital investment program for our state. We cannot afford to let our roads, bridges, airports, schools, university and the other infrastructure we have in the state fall to the wayside. In order to do any of this, there must also be conversation about how we address the ongoing issue of revenues and create a more stable source of revenue to support the budget into the future.
Above all else, however, we need leaders who talk about our state and future in a way that shows they believe in this opportunity. This negativity and short-term fix approach causes a dangerous ripple effect to investor and consumer confidence as well as public trust.
At a time when young people are wondering if they will have to move Outside to get a great education or build a successful career, why are we not talking about building an economy about the future and creating new jobs for Alaskans? This is about more than just utilizing our natural resources like oil, gas, and mining. It is also about seizing opportunity and growth in industries like healthcare, cargo, tourism, fishing and supporting our military.
We should be tapping into our talent right here in Alaska in sectors like alternative energy, new high-tech opportunities in areas like unmanned aircraft development, new ways to use our fiber and many more. This talent is already here and they are doing great things in their businesses and communities – and we should be using this at the state level. We should be bringing this talent into government as a means to modernizing and improving how government runs.
I have worked alongside so many Alaskans – both as a businessman and in public office – and I know how hard all Alaskans have worked to make this state the best place to live. That is why I have been disappointed to hear the negativity from so many Alaskans about what our future holds. We all have an opportunity and responsibility to build Alaska’s future. We must make our voices heard, fight for what we believe in, and understand that while tough choices must be made, if we come together we will find a responsible compromise that puts us all on a path to long-term fiscal stability and growth – and yes, we will all have to give a little to make it happen.
The governor has earned the right to lay out his ideas, but the people have the power to hold our elected officials accountable for their words and actions. Now is not the time to disengage. We must speak out when we disagree and talk to our friends and neighbors about how we secure the future we all want together.
We must continue to harness the grit, determination and innovative spirit of being Alaskans. So pursue your great idea; build your next invention; continue to invest your time and energy in building your family’s future right here in Alaska.
Mark Begich was the Democratic Party candidate for governor in 2018 and previously served as a U.S. Senator for Alaska from 2009-2015.
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