The common thread stalling progress on Alaska’s priorities

It can seem that no matter where you look among the defining issues facing Anchorage and Alaska right now, things aren’t working out. Gov. Mike Dunleavy and the Legislature are in a seemingly interminable fight over the Permanent Fund dividend. The COVID-19 pandemic is raging out of control, and vaccine holdouts are driving up case rates and hospitalizations. And progress on dealing with homelessness appears to have ground to a halt as Mayor Dave Bronson and the Anchorage Assembly squabble over who’s running the show. The three issues are very different, but the reasons why we’re failing to move forward on them are the same: an unwillingness to compromise in the name of progress.

The dividend and the budget fight

As the Legislature’s third special session nears its end, the defining issue is the size of the PFD, with Gov. Dunleavy and a sizable minority of legislators insisting on a $2,350 dividend that would drain the Permanent Fund by more than $1 billion past the legal limit. On the other side of the fence is the legislative majority, for whom such an overdraw is anathema. Legislative leaders correctly surmise that if lawmakers overdraw the Permanent Fund once, it will become easier and easier to drain that account, just as has happened with the statutory and constitutional budget reserves. We can’t afford to treat the Permanent Fund’s earnings like just another disposable savings account — that’s the quickest path to the end of the PFD itself.

There are a few hitches keeping legislators from reaching a grand bargain on the future of the PFD and the budget more broadly. Primarily, the sticking point is that minority legislators insist on a supersized PFD before they’ll entertain any talk of other items that would help to balance the budget — they know that the big PFD they want will mean taxing Alaskans, and they don’t want to have to admit it. Over the past week, majority legislators, to their credit, have finally begun to discuss alternatives for helping close the budget gap, and have indicated willingness to meet the big-PFD crowd in the middle if they can identify a way to balance the budget while paying bigger dividend checks while avoiding taxes. So far, however, there’s no real sign that enough mega-PFD hardliners have any interest in budging from their demands.

The COVID-19 surge

The first few months of the coronavirus vaccine rollout, when Alaska led the nation in its vaccination rate, now feel like a different era. Alaska has slumped to 34th place, and despite an ambitious public-private vaccination sweepstakes effort, the attitudes of many vaccine-skeptical Alaskans appear to have calcified to the point that refusing the shot that would let our communities resume a more normal life is deeply tied to their sense of identity.

When the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines were approved by the FDA on an emergency basis, skeptics pointed to the lack of full approval as evidence that there could be problems with the shots. Once Pfizer was granted full approval, anti-vaxxers moved the goal posts, trying to sow doubt about the FDA’s motives. Moreover, they’ve pointed to the existence of rare breakthrough infections as a sign that the vaccines don’t work, ignoring the facts that the vaccinations make breakthrough infections less severe — and that it’s the refusal to vaccinate and the behavior of unvaccinated people that have allowed the delta variant to rage out of control, making the frequency of breakthrough infections much greater.

Vaccine holdouts often characterize their refusal as a matter of principle, but standing on the principle that it’s one’s right to endanger others because of a belief in partisan hucksters over actual medical professionals is ludicrous. All of us have been making compromises in our lives because of the pandemic, which is now being prolonged by an obstinate minority to the detriment of us all. Get inoculated, and encourage any friends and family still on the fence to do the same. The sooner people do, the sooner the pandemic will end.

The homelessness quagmire

As Mayor Bronson took office, there was a brief period where it looked like Anchorage could have the best of both worlds: An ambitious plan to combat homelessness from the municipality at a level we’d not yet seen, as well as an Assembly that would be skeptical enough to not merely rubber-stamp the administration’s plans. Unfortunately, that now appears to have been a mirage, or at least wishful thinking by those of us hoping for some long-sought progress on the homelessness issue. What we got instead was an Assembly that wasted 18 months avoiding the problem, only to tear down Bronson’s plans without debate or revision, and an administration that was wedded enough to its own plan to torpedo other options. The two sides have resorted to mediation to try to salvage some progress on a homelessness plan, but if we are to judge relations between the mayor and Assembly based on the escalating battles and wars of words over Bronson’s appointees, it’s not looking good.

Regardless of who’s more in the right on any respective salvo, there’s one thing that can be said with certainty about the increasingly hostile atmosphere between the Municipality’s legislative and executive branch: It’s not moving us one whit closer to a full-featured, or even partial, homelessness solution. As winter approaches, we’re no closer to a long-term shelter solution than we were at this time last year, which is shameful given the windfall of federal funds that have been made available to help address the problem. Anchorage residents — especially those who are being left in limbo because of government inaction — deserve better.

The common thread linking three issues is emblematic of the cultural flavor of the day: an unwillingness to compromise. The extreme polarization of our society, which began on the national level and has now crept all the way down to local issues, has made the notion of compromise taboo in today’s politics. The word compromise itself has become a dirty word. The people on each side mistakenly think that working with the other means letting their opponents win. But we’re too evenly split for one side to prevail by beating the other into submission, and all that approach does is foster resentment and distrust. Think of what we could accomplish with our state budget if legislators and the governor were willing to seek middle ground in good faith on the PFD. Think of how quickly the pandemic could end if people were willing to look at the science supporting the vaccines rather than listen to pundits who profit from division and misinformation. Think of the progress the Municipality could make on homelessness — and a host of other local priorities — if Mayor Bronson and the Assembly weren’t fighting each other on every agenda item for the next three years.

It shouldn’t be unrealistic to expect our elected officials, and our community members in general, to remember that we’re in this together and that nobody wins if we each declare it’s our way or the highway. But it’s hard to see things improving unless there’s some level of understanding and respect established — and it’s incumbent on all of us to contribute to that goal. The great statesmen of old are not gone, we just quit voting for them. Do your part, and let your elected officials know you expect them to do theirs.