Editorials

Does Dunleavy’s state of the state rhetoric match the record?

On Tuesday in Juneau, Gov. Mike Dunleavy gave his final State of the State address before this fall’s election, and if it sounded like a campaign speech, that’s no accident. The governor is facing primary challengers from the right, left and center, which puts him in the position of trying to preserve as much support as possible — and that means delivering a speech built around themes that appeal to as many Alaskans as possible. But does all that triangulating match his governing so far? Let’s take a look.

Resource development

The governor hammered on the theme of struggling against an overbearing, hostile federal government. When it comes to oil and gas permitting, Dunleavy is right — it’s been impossible to mistake the Biden administration’s putting the brakes on Arctic oil and gas leasing, not only in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s 1002 area but also in less controversial regions such as parts of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska and ConocoPhillips’ Willow prospect, which it previously supported. Of course, the governor engaged in some familiar hyperbole, raising the specter of having to depend on uneasy allies like Saudi Arabia or potential foes such as Russia for oil and gas — which isn’t particularly realistic. In 2020, the U.S. exported more oil than it imported, and only a small fraction of those imports came from Saudi Arabia and China; the U.S. imports nearly four times as much oil from Canada as from those two countries combined.

But though he was right on the need to stand up for the state’s biggest resource extraction prospects, the governor’s railing against the Biden administration’s hostility to Alaska rang a bit hollow given that the state is set to receive billions of dollars in federal infrastructure money over the next several years, some of which Gov. Dunleavy wants to use to plug holes in the operating budget. It was surprising that the governor didn’t mention the tremendous infrastructure opportunity we now have — nor did he call out the hard work of Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, as well as Rep. Don Young, in making sure Alaska will benefit from many of the infrastructure bill’s programs and provisions.

Education

The parts of the governor’s address that dealt with education contained the biggest disconnects between what the governor said he valued and the actions he’s taken so far as governor. He touted full funding in this year’s proposed budget for school bond debt reimbursement, scholarships and the University of Alaska, as well as the WWAMI program for prospective doctors — all items that he put on the chopping block when the state’s fiscal picture was less rosy. It’s ironic that a governor who spent a considerable amount of time as a school administrator has been so inclined to make cuts to education. One of the only positives from the governor’s focus on education was his centering of families and promoting school choice for students and parents.

Public safety

On issues of crime and public safety, it was a mixed bag for Gov. Dunleavy. He was quick to take credit for a substantial drop in crime in 2020, chalking it up as a win for his public safety focus and the repeal of the Senate Bill 91 criminal justice reforms. In fact, however, the crime drop was more reflective of the COVID-19 pandemic than any other cause — researchers discovered that the same thing happened in 1918, when the most recent comparable pandemic took place.

There were some bright spots — based on his statements, the governor’s focus does appear to be settling on the state’s struggles with providing equal justice in rural communities. And his People First initiative strikes the right notes in addressing issues of homelessness, sex trafficking, and missing and murdered Indigenous people, but it’s too soon to tell if the plan will lead to meaningful policy change or if it’s just an optimistic election-year platitude. Hopefully he can continue to build on improvements to public safety in the coming year.

The COVID-19 pandemic

There was no predicting the pandemic, but it has reshaped our lives in many ways during the past two years. In his approach to COVID-19, Gov. Dunleavy has walked a tightrope between preserving personal liberty and taking every measure to protect public health, and while he’s made missteps, Alaska hasn’t fallen off on one side or the other — which, looking at other places that have had worse outcomes, was a realistic possibility.

He has at times been frustratingly complacent in his personal rhetoric on vaccines, which has ranged from mildly supportive to ambivalent depending on the occasion, but he has stood by Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink, who has persevered in marshaling Alaska’s public health resources and coordinating the state’s pandemic response. There have been issues along the way with resource allocation, testing, vaccine messaging and other topics, but the final toll of any pandemic is the deaths it causes and the lasting effects it has on the population. While “long COVID” will require years of study to fully understand, Alaska has so far been fortunate to not have suffered more deaths — and we hope that continues. Importantly, the governor has been able to navigate the pandemic while maintaining individual liberties, and without many statewide mandates and closures.

Alaska’s fiscal plan

Given that the Permanent Fund dividend was the centerpiece of Dunleavy’s campaign and has figured largely in his budget plans every year, it was surprising not to hear more from the governor about it. Not surprisingly, what he did say was election rhetoric, touting the state’s budget surplus — which, as any Alaskan who’s been here very long knows, is more a tribute to the oil price fairy and the performance of the markets in which the Permanent Fund is invested than the governor’s policies.

Speaking of those policies, what would really be helpful from the governor would be a step back from his big-PFDs-at-all-costs campaign plank and a focus on making sure the Permanent Fund can grow and provide for state services — after all, this year it far surpassed oil as the major source of funds for the operating budget. Making sure the fund can provide for future generations of Alaskans — and not just the checks they receive once a year — would be a legacy that would endure long past this election year.

Sure, that might be a departure from the governor’s previous rhetoric on the issue. But this is an election year, and as his speech showed, he’s willing to change his rhetoric — and even policy — in other areas to help better align with what’s best for Alaskans. Why not?

Anchorage Daily News editorial board

Editorial opinions are by the Anchorage Daily News 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 a letter or longer commentary for consideration, email commentary@adn.com.

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