The Alaska Legislature’s failure to override Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s budget vetoes would be an interesting topic for a political science class if the consequences were not so devastating.
Dunleavy has followed the path of minority rule, and minority rule in a democracy is always of interest to students of politics. How do you justify minority power over the majority and what mechanisms are available to implement it?
In classrooms, students routinely are taught the importance of protecting minority rights. American history, students learn, is replete with controversies over the limits of majority rule. The U.S. Constitution itself was born of one of these controversies. In 1789, how could tiny Rhode Island protect itself from the behemoth next door, Massachusetts? Equal representation in the Senate was one way.
The history of the struggle to end slavery can be seen as a protracted battle over of the property rights of the slave-holding minority. Slaveholders built an intricate intellectual and legal structure to maintain their minority power, backed by force. The American majority stripped them of their slaves not after debate but through violence - the Civil War.
In Alaska, Gov. Dunleavy has the mechanism for minority rule over the budget - the veto - but does not have a majority of the Legislature behind him, nor a majority of the public. Legislators say they have received thousands of messages damning Dunleavy. Civic and business leaders have spoken out against the cuts to the university, Medicaid, public schools, the arts and old folks’ benefits. I would wager the majority of paid lobbyists, so often trashed for everything that smells in Juneau, are against the vetoes. They have too many clients who directly benefit from government spending and the stable political system Gov. Dunleavy upended.
The governor's oft-repeated justification for the cuts is: There is no choice. Government doesn't have the money to do what it did in the past.
Governments always have a choice, no matter how unpalatable. Subsidizing oil companies is a choice. Rejecting all forms of state taxation is a choice. Demanding a $3,000 Alaska Permanent Fund dividend while laying off thousands of workers is a choice. Gov. Dunleavy has said that it is fine by him if the cuts shackle government - and that is what he intends to do, while championing the genius of the free enterprise system as the solution to our difficulties. Whatever free enterprise can do, it will never respond rapidly enough to rescue teens whose college plans have been ruined.
Don't misunderstand; The governor has Alaskans who agree with him - maybe a third of the Legislature and a chunk of public opinion perpetually riled up about big government. In the 2018 election, the Governor received 51.44 of the vote. It is a good guess there are people who picked Dunleavy who now think "I voted for the guy because he was the best choice at the time. I didn't expect him to eliminate my job."
By governing via veto, Gov. Dunleavy has abandoned persuasion for coercion, and he has magnified his weaknesses in the rest of the legislative process. He can't pass Constitutional amendments by himself. He can't appropriate money by himself. Non-budgetary legislation he introduces will face a new level of scrutiny and hostility from burned lawmakers.
Governors understand that they will make enemies. Bill Walker knew this when he reduced the amount of the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend. But governors rarely set out to make enemies as Dunleavy has.
I have heard people say Gov. Dunleavy is a tool of the Koch brothers, the right-wing billionaires. There is some evidence for this, given Dunleavy’s relationship with the Koch-created group Americans for Prosperity.
But however close Dunleavy is with the brothers, it is clear that he understands two of the core Koch beliefs, rarely expressed publicly by the Koch family members themselves but commonly heard from the university and think-tank intellectuals who have joined the Kochs.
First, to succeed, you must use the legislative rules to maximum advantage and then change the rules to your advantage through Constitutional amendments.
Second, killing major state-funded programs is never popular with a majority of voters. Too many people (“takers, not makers,” in Koch-speak) benefit from student loans, Medicaid, power cost subsidies. A referendum on dismantling the university would never pass. Gov. Dunleavy knew this when he began his veto review. The cries of pain were expected, even those of establishment Republicans like Senate President Cathy Giessel.
Gov. Dunleavy has had his way, but he has paid a price - to his reputation, to public respect for his office. He has been especially hurt by his inability to either show (or fake) empathy for the people he is damaging.
In candidate Dunleavy's 2018 election-pamphlet statement, he concluded "Too many politicians have squandered the trust of the people with broken promises on the PFD, taxes, the budget, and other issues. I am committed to earning that trust back, the only way I know how; by keeping promises and commitments."
At the moment, Gov. Dunleavy's trust department is earning a rate of return of about zero.
Michael Carey is an Anchorage Daily News columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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