Pandemic is no time for partisanship and ego politics

Alaska has been lucky so far in avoiding the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, but that doesn’t mean the damage to our state has been minimal. On the contrary, by every metric other than the case count and death toll, Alaska has been ravaged. Alaska North Slope crude oil prices barely cover the cost of transportation, much less extraction, processing and taxes. The summer tour season, with little to no cruise traffic and few independent travelers willing to risk coronavirus, will be a shadow of its regular self. Fisheries, pending plans to reopen safely and means to operate processing plants without an Outside workforce, remain a question mark. It all adds up to a pressing need for the state’s leaders to work with one another to get as much COVID-19 relief to Alaskans as quickly and equitably as possible, without letting personal and policy differences get in the way of helping those they serve.

Alaska has $1.25 billion in federal CARES Act funding to help affected communities, health care providers, businesses and nonprofits suffering from the economic effects of COVID-19. That’s a big pot of money, but it won’t come near to making our state whole, so we must allocate it as wisely as we can. That means the process of splitting it up, a joint venture between Gov. Mike Dunleavy and the Alaska Legislature, should be quick and cooperative, not competitive.

When it comes to this governor and Legislature, recent history shows that’s a tall order. Sharp differences between the governor’s office and legislative leadership on issues of both policy and personality have led to icy relations, public spats and several lawsuits. Leaders in the Legislature have clashed with Gov. Dunleavy prominently on budget issues, and particularly on his signature campaign promise — to return Permanent Fund dividend payments to their original statutory amount, and to make back payments to retroactively make up for partial reductions during the past several years. And for his part, Gov. Dunleavy has been loath to consult legislative leadership on major initiatives, such as the award of a no-bid contract to manage the Alaska Psychiatric Institute and spending $525,000 on a virtual school platform out of Florida.

For Alaska’s relief funds to have maximum effect, they should be forwarded to affected communities, businesses and nonprofits as soon as possible, and they should be divided equitably. That means it’s time for Gov. Dunleavy and legislative leaders to put their egos aside and work in the best interest of Alaskans. Legislators need not oppose the governor at every turn just to show that they hold the state’s fiscal reins, and they must also resist the impulse to make the disbursement a Christmas tree for those with the most political clout. For his part, the governor should loop lawmakers in on his allocation rationale and listen to their input, as they have been hearing from their constituents and have granular knowledge about specific areas of need.

The harsh reality is that Alaskans are suffering, some from the virus and all from the economic fallout. Letting the distribution of these vital funds devolve into a political turf war puts Alaskans in the position of a child caught between feuding parents while the house burns down around them. For the sake of the people of the state, both sides need to stop keeping score and start working together. It’s not far-fetched to imagine that cooperation now could even set the stage for a more diplomatic resolution to Alaska’s other existential questions — the future of the PFD, oil revenue, spending levels, etc. — which have only been temporarily set aside and will need to be addressed as soon as possible.

It’s been bad enough for Alaska’s prospects and productivity that the governor and Legislature have worked at cross purposes so often in the past two years. With a pandemic threatening Alaskans’ health and economic security, we simply can’t afford it. Gov. Dunleavy and legislators should swallow their egos, talk to one another and hammer out a COVID-19 relief solution that helps Alaskans as soon as possible. That would be true leadership, a commodity that has so far been in exceedingly short supply.

Anchorage Daily News editorial board

Editorial opinions are by the editorial board, which welcomes responses from readers. Board members are ADN President Ryan Binkley, Publisher Andy Pennington and Opinion Editor Tom Hewitt. The board operates independently from the ADN newsroom. To submit feedback, a letter or longer commentary for consideration, email commentary@adn.com.