There have been few Alaska governors whose first terms played out as chaotically as Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s. Taking office in December 2018 amid a budget crisis and multibillion-dollar deficit, Dunleavy’s first move was a disastrous austerity budget coupled with a proposal for a supersized Permanent Fund dividend. The resulting chaos and dysfunction in Juneau led to a recall campaign, and the groundswell of support for removing the governor from office caused a more moderate tack in Dunleavy’s second year as the state’s chief executive.
That retreat from austerity plans and the COVID-19 pandemic took the wind out of the recall’s sails; Dunleavy got a further boost in public support as Alaska’s toll from the pandemic remained among the lowest per capita among U.S. states and, unlike some other states, did it while admirably upholding vital civil liberties. Simultaneously, oil prices crashed and slowly recovered, underscoring once again the need for a longer-term fiscal plan rather than keeping our fingers crossed and hoping the oil price fairy blesses us with three-figure prices per barrel. But then, as the final act in Dunleavy’s first term, the war in Ukraine sent oil prices through the roof. That gave lawmakers a get-out-of-jail-free card that allowed for not only an escape from hard budget choices, but also an irresponsibly large PFD and one of the largest spending packages in Alaska history, which served the practical purpose of shoring up reelection bids for the governor and legislators alike.
So where are we now compared to where we were when Gov. Dunleavy first took office? Budget-wise, we’re no closer to a sustainable solution; the yearly PFD horse-trading has proved too seductive a bargaining chip for all involved in Juneau to devise a method whereby it could be set aside. While most violent crime is trending lower, we’re spending more on prisons than our university system — and that gap is widening. And Alaska remains the worst in the nation for domestic violence and sexual assault, an unacceptable state of affairs. And, crucially, Alaska has yet to devise a way to replace the lost revenue from oil’s long, slow decline as the main support for state spending. If that problem can’t be solved, the consequences for all our other issues — education, public safety, energy costs — will be dire.
What will Gov. Dunleavy do to make progress? He would be wise to avoid the kind of needless provocations that characterized the beginning of his first term, especially because bipartisan majority caucuses look very likely to be governing both houses of the Alaska Legislature — one has already organized in the Senate; the near-even split in the House has made the math there more difficult no matter who’s in charge. It’s true that the governor was overwhelmingly reelected, but Alaskans also sent one of the most moderate Legislatures in decades to Juneau.
This is the moment for Gov. Dunleavy to reset his relationship with this new Legislature. His goal of securing multiple constitutional amendments to address some of the state’s most contentious budget fights would also be aided by trust-building with legislators and more time spent in Juneau, and not just on the third floor of the Capitol. As we’ve all learned during the COVID-19 pandemic, although technology has come a long way, there’s no replacement for in-person conversation when it comes to hashing out difficult problems that require consensus building.
The governor’s budget for the coming year is due by mid-December. This will be the first concrete sign we’ll have of the tack Dunleavy plans to take, because through his budget, he will express his priorities — and by extension, his values. In a few weeks, we’ll have a pretty good idea whether he aims to build consensus or push hard for his own vision to prevail without compromise.
The governor may wonder, justifiably, why he should have to compromise when he won reelection fairly comfortably; after all, doesn’t a mandate count for anything? The answer, of course, is that he doesn’t have to compromise — he may well adopt the same adversarial stance he took with legislative leadership on and off throughout his first four years, and the result would be another four years where we see too little progress on too many important issues. But we should all hope that he’ll choose a collaborative approach rather than a my-way-or-the-highway ultimatum. Gov. Dunleavy has a rare opportunity to recast his legacy over the next four years. For the sake of Alaska, let’s hope it’s one of statesmanship, collaboration and making tangible progress toward setting the state on a solid foundation for the future.