Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy set the tone for a transformative legislative session Feb. 13, when he strode into the conference room in the state capitol and introduced his budget. That budget was a starkly different document than any Alaska has seen in decades, with deep cuts to some of state government’s central services, such as education, transportation and health care. To the room full of reporters, Gov. Dunleavy explained his belief in a balanced budget with statutory-formula Permanent Fund dividends, and referred most questions touching on specifics to Office of Management and Budget director Donna Arduin.
Then the governor went quiet for two weeks, letting surrogates defend budget choices in front of legislative committees and staying away from the front lines as a raft of negative reaction poured forth from legislators and the general public. Until Feb. 26, the governor offered no substantive public comment on the budget that defines his agenda this year. In doing so, he let those opposed to his budget define it and missed an opportunity to explain his vision for Alaska.
On Feb. 26, the governor belatedly held a flurry of interviews with the ADN and other Alaska media outlets, offering limited insight into his reasoning for making some of his budget choices while citing lower-than-expected oil prices as part of the calculus. This was a welcome turn, especially for the governor’s political allies in the Legislature and elsewhere who were looking for help understanding Gov. Dunleavy’s vision — but even still, that vision remains only partially articulated. The state’s need to get expenditures in line with revenues before laying out a path forward for education, for instance, will do little to reassure parents whose children could be navigating class sizes of 40 in the fall.
And the answers the governor has provided in recent days have led to further questions. Asked why he made cuts that would effectively end ferry service via the Alaska Marine Highway System. Gov. Dunleavy said that unexpected drops in the price of oil forced him to break promises he made to Alaskans on Sept. 12 that he wouldn’t cut ferries. But the governor chose to keep other, far more costly promises, such as his vow to return to the statutory formula for Permanent Fund dividend disbursement, as well as additional payments to cover partial allocation cuts in the past three years. How did he balance these priorities? If he wants his budget, or his vision for Alaska, to survive the Legislature, he will have to explain why he considered some of his campaign promises less essential than others — and why the ones he prioritized are the right ones. Until now, the only rationale for his sweeping reforms has been that he was elected with a mandate. But the reality is that in November, Alaskans only had two choices — Mike Dunleavy or Mark Begich. Now the options are more varied, the landscape more complex and the reality of the state’s fiscal situation more apparent.
Gov. Dunleavy must make his case directly to the people of Alaska, and allow Alaskans to make their case to him. He has started a necessary conversation, but hasn’t taken the next step. The governor says he plans to hold town halls to take his message to Alaskans. That’s a good, overdue idea. For his budget to have any chance of success, he will need to explain why it’s the best path forward for Alaska — and convince Alaskans and legislators that the service cuts he’s asking them to endure will ultimately prove worthwhile. Effecting change on this scale requires doing the right thing, even if it’s the hard thing. Facing Alaskans and hearing their concerns in person is the right thing. It’s past time for the governor to step forward, travel the state and articulate in detail his vision for Alaska’s future. That’s leadership, and without it, he has little hope that his budget vision will prevail in this year or those that follow.
The views expressed here are those of the Anchorage Daily News, as expressed by its editorial board, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. Current editorial board members are Ryan Binkley, Andy Pennington, Julia O’Malley, Tom Hewitt and Andrew Jensen. To submit a piece for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to email@example.com or click here to submit via any web browser.