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Alaska seniors get a glimpse of the governor’s grim budget vision

  • Author: Michael Carey
    | Opinion
  • Updated: May 7
  • Published May 7

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy waves after giving a speech to the Chugiak-Eagle River Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, May 1, 2019 in Eagle River, Alaska. (Matt Tunseth / Chugiak-Eagle River Star)

Gov. Mike Dunleavy brought his budget road show to the Anchorage Senior Center on Friday. Maybe 100 people awaited him in the activities room.

The governor was accompanied by Commissioner of Health and Social Services Adam Crum, who provided detailed answers to questions about Medicaid, the Alaska Pioneers Home and senior programs.

The governor was scheduled to speak at noon, and give him credit, he arrived at 11:59 a.m. and was ready to begin after a brief introduction.

The presentation was a verbal extension, accompanied by a slide show, of a 12-page pamphlet the Dunleavy administration has distributed all over Alaska, “A Statewide Discussion for a Permanent Fiscal Plan.” The presentation lasted about 40 minutes before the governor took questions — most of them written, a few spoken. As expected, the people who spoke didn’t confine themselves to questions - they testified about their personal history, their hardships, how long they have been in Alaska. In other words, their qualifications as an Alaskan. The governor bore this stoically, as every public official must.

Dunleavy, at 6-foot-7, must be the biggest man in the room in every room he visits - unless he visits NBA locker rooms. This sets him apart from the people around him, as he is literally looking down on everyone. But at the senior center, the governor was much more relaxed and polished than when he first took to the road. Public speaking is a learned art, and it should not surprise even his critics that he is improving. His problem is the merchandise he is selling — shock therapy packaged as fiscal austerity.

The Feb. 14 front page of the Anchorage Daily News told the story with headlines “Governor launches broad plan to deeply cut Alaska state spending,” “Budget includes $225 cut to state share of Medicaid,” “Plan would ‘gut’ UA system, force big cuts for public schools, educators say.” A back-page headline announced Dunleavy’s plan to shift $400 million in local taxes from municipalities to the state — reducing the North Slope Borough to near penury.

Dunleavy gave the seniors a history lesson, walking them through the growth of state spending from 1960 to the present. He asked "How many of you were here in 1960?" A dozen hands shot up.

Alaskans spend many times more government money than we did when Jack Kennedy and Richard Nixon were battling for the presidency. But we are far richer, collectively, today than we were in 1960, a time when heated garages were uncommon and Hawaiian vacations were unknown except to the wealthy.

Gov. Dunleavy was forceful in noting the growth in the budget. But he didn't acknowledge in more than passing that the population has grown many times. He also didn't carefully explain that 1960 dollars and 2019 dollars are not the same thing because of inflation. Like the rest of his presentation, this segment was an exercise in political rhetoric, not economic analysis.

Without austerity, the governor believes, we will empty the treasury, damage the Alaska Permanent Fund and reduce the dividend to zero. We need the shock therapy of cuts.

“Whenever we come into money, we spend it,” the governor said. This a favorite refrain of the governor’s, and it is obviously not true. The Permanent Fund is now worth more than $64 billion. Much of the value comes from earnings, but there would be no Permanent Fund if Alaskans had not saved money to start the fund.

About halfway through the presentation, the governor said “Everybody is going to have to share the pain.” This is a strange message from an elected leader — I am going to make you suffer for your own good. It’s more befitting a dentist. Even in the depths of the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt didn’t call for more pain as part of his economic cure.

The fact is, if there is Dunleavy-induced pain, it’s not going to be apportioned like the dividend — an equal amount for every Alaskan. Cuts to local schools and the university hurt those involved with and served by schools and the university, not those who have no relationship with either.

Since he began campaigning more than a year ago, Gov. Dunleavy has argued there is no choice but austerity. To believe this, you have to believe, as the governor does, all new taxes, no matter in what form, are unacceptable. There can be no sales tax, income tax, school tax, head tax or higher oil taxes. There can never be new revenue.

Well, maybe not all taxes are bad. During the question period, an old timer who said he was from Colorado told the governor “The Colorado pot tax has allowed them to fix roads, do all kinds of things for government.” Dunleavy shot back, “Then maybe we need more Alaskans smoking pot.”

The quip won hearty applause. The governor said he had to leave. We all went home.

The quip was the only thing to laugh about in an otherwise grim presentation, although the governor did note that given the Legislature’s powers, he expects a budget compromise. Which leaves me with the question: What would a compromise with a man of ironclad certainty about austerity look like?

Michael Carey is an Anchorage Daily News columnist.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

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