By any standard, the work of Alaska’s elected representatives is unfinished this year. Before gaveling out of its first special session Thursday, the Legislature passed an operating budget and an partial capital budget, but was unable to come to terms on an amount for the Permanent Fund dividend or a source of funds for the capital budget. Gov. Mike Dunleavy wasted no time in issuing a call back into session to deal with the dividend issue. If the state is to avoid missing out on hundreds of millions of dollars in federal matching funds for much-needed infrastructure projects, the governor or legislative leaders will have to also make a special session call for a funding source for the capital budget. But the governor himself has an important responsibility, one he should fulfill as soon as possible: He should sign the state operating budget. Doing so will provide much-needed certainty about Alaska’s path forward as the Legislature addresses the rest of its unfinished business.
Under the Alaska Constitution, the governor has a maximum of 20 days (excluding Sundays) from the budget’s transmission at the end of the legislative session to sign the operating budget or, in declining to do so, letting it pass into law unsigned. Because the Legislature took so long to hammer out agreement on the state budget, Gov. Dunleavy isn’t obligated to sign the budget or let it pass unsigned until early July, which would mean a several-day government shutdown.
There is a political motivation for the governor to delay his approval of the operating budget. He has made paying out a full Permanent Fund dividend under the 1980s formula a non-negotiable plank of his platform. Leaving the operating budget unsigned keeps legislators in the dark about potential line-item vetoes and could give him leverage in negotiating with those who are on the fence about the dividend.
But the same uncertainty that gives the governor leverage also hurts the state and Alaskans. Lending and ratings agencies upon which the state depends for bonding and credit rates hold a dim view of fiscal ambivalence, particularly the kind that could end with massive funding vetoes or a government shutdown. When those agencies see Alaska as risky, it costs us more to borrow money for important state projects. And until the budget is signed, tens of thousands of Alaskans who work for the state directly or depend on its services are left wondering if the budget fight will leave them without jobs or benefits they need to get by.
This isn’t to say that Gov. Dunleavy should abdicate his line-item veto power. He has the capability, which he may exercise as he chooses, to reduce or strike items from the budget. The responsible way to govern would be to make whatever cuts he deems necessary, whereupon the Legislature would have the option to override those vetoes if it can muster a three-fourths vote of its members. That’s an appropriately high bar, as the Legislature would have to come to broad agreement that the governor’s vetoes via line-item cuts would be more harmful than beneficial.
In government, political considerations rather than practical ones too often rule the day. Gov. Dunleavy should show he is more concerned about what’s good for the state and Alaskans by making any vetoes he deems appropriate and signing the operating budget as soon as possible. Once that’s done, the Legislature can act on his vetoes if it feels doing so is necessary, and Alaskans across the state can go about their business without fear that state services will soon come to a grinding halt because of a political fight.