OPINION: The most reckless budget in Alaska history

Gov. Mike Dunleavy is attempting to bully legislators into approving a budget that defunds education, wipes out savings, and creates a $900 million deficit. This budget is so reckless it would crate a deficit even if oil prices stay at $100 per barrel. The governor clearly sees the $5,500 mega-dividend in this budget as a political win in an election year, but it would come at the expense of public safety, our schools and the fiscal health of our state. I hope the House ultimately votes “no” on this extraordinarily reckless budget.

How did we get here? The House previously passed an operating budget that included a $1,250 Permanent Fund dividend, a $1,300 energy relief check to address high oil prices, and adequate funding for education, public safety and other core state services like the Pioneer Homes, care for vulnerable kids, and services for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. The Senate Finance Committee made modest changes to this operating budget, then rolled in a modest capital budget that includes things like deferred maintenance for the University of Alaska and schools, and match for certain federally funded programs such as roads. On the Senate floor, senators added state matching funding for the Port of Alaska and Port of Nome, both of which should benefit from the recently passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act championed by our Congressional delegation. Given the high price of oil, we could make all of these rational investments and save more than $1.5 billion for when oil prices fall.

Then the Senate floor process went haywire. Sen. Mike Shower introduced an amendment for a $4,200 PFD, which, added to the $1,300 Energy Relief Check, totals $5,500 in cash payments per person. Sen. Shower said he didn’t think a $5,500 cash payment would pass, but that it would create room to negotiate with the House. That amendment passed 10-9 on the Senate floor, and the Senate went on to pass the overall budget by a 15-5 margin. Every on- and off-record conversation I’m aware of indicated that senators understood the $5,500 payment would not pass because the House would vote “no” on concurrence, leading to a conference committee and PFD compromise.

Unexpectedly, Gov. Dunleavy started strong-arming House members to vote “yes” on concurrence. Legislators never vote “yes” on a budget concurrence before conference, so this would be historically unprecedented. The governor’s bullying tactics were pretty simple: For legislators who care about university funding (for example), he would threaten to veto university funding unless they voted “yes” for concurrence with the Senate budget. In the midst of these bullying tactics, the House has delayed concurrence votes, recognizing the devastating consequences of approving such a reckless budget.

Make no mistake, if we adopt this budget we create the grave risk of locking in Donna Arduin-style budget cuts next year. In fact, the deficit in the budget is so large we could actually run out of money in the middle of this fiscal year. Of course, the governor could use that as an excuse for further vetoes of core services within this budget. No matter how you cut it, voting “yes” on concurrence with the Senate budget would be catastrophic for our state, and it’s a sad day when a governor thinks his short-term political interests are more important than the long term prosperity of some 730,000 people, not to mention future generations of Alaskans.

For nearly four years, legislators have worked across party lines to avert one Dunleavy-induced disaster after another. First it was the Arduin-proposed cuts, then it was shutting down or privatizing the ferries, Pioneer Homes, correctional facilities and Division of Motor Vehicles locations. Then Dunleavy threatened to shut down the government and block capital budget funding, using the obscure “effective date” vote in concert with the House minority. Then the governor vetoed the PFD and called four special sessions last summer.

The governor is a one-trick pony who only knows how to bully. Yet we have survived the last four years, grown the Permanent Fund and protected our core institutions, despite incredibly long odds. I’m cautiously optimistic the House can vote no on this incredibly destructive budget, so that Alaska can survive Dunleavy and all of our constituents can enjoy a prosperous future. We survived a decade of low oil prices. I just can’t believe we’d create an entirely self-induced fiscal crisis when we have enough revenue for operations, meaningful dividends and putting away money in savings.

Rep. Zack Fields represents Downtown Anchorage and co-chairs the House Labor and Commerce Committee.

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Zack Fields

Rep. Zack Fields, D-Anchorage, represents District 20 in the Alaska House of Representatives. He was elected in 2018.