Shayne Thompson runs the store in the Tlingit village of Angoon, on Admiralty Island south of Juneau. There’s no road link to the mainland, so Thompson relies on the Alaska state ferry system to deliver his loads of fresh groceries, at least once a week.
That’s why Thompson voted for Republican Mike Dunleavy in last year’s gubernatorial election.
On the campaign trail, Dunleavy said “he was going to do everything he could to keep the ferry system intact,” said Thompson, 53.
Two weeks before the election, Dunleavy told the Ketchikan Daily News that there was “no plan to hack, cut or destroy” the state ferry system. In another interview, with the city’s public radio station, he said: “I don’t envision at any time that there would not be a functional, robust ferry service in the Southeast, the Panhandle of Alaska.”
In February, however, Dunleavy proposed a budget that would cut more than two-thirds of the state ferry budget and stop the system’s operations Oct. 1.
Now, Thompson said: “I feel like a fool, because of listening to somebody that was basically had a totally different agenda in mind when they were on the campaign trail."
Dunleavy’s plan would also make sharp reductions in government support for the state-run Pioneer Homes for elderly Alaskans, as well as to the University of Alaska system and to public schools — all of which, at various times during his gubernatorial campaign, Dunleavy said he did not plan to cut.
The reversals have left Dunleavy’s critics fuming. In interviews, they said the governor was able to make dubious claims about the budget on the campaign trail that were never debunked by a weakened mainstream media — which they said could have changed the outcome of the election.
“I think the campaign would have been different had he been more transparent about the costs of his proposals. And we didn’t have that conversation, so we can’t know how it would have come out,” said Anchorage Democratic Rep. Ivy Spohnholz. “I think Alaskans deserve transparency and disclosure in terms of what people want to achieve when they come into office.”
[The House has rejected Gov. Dunleavy’s state budget. Here’s what’s next.]
Dunleavy declined to be interviewed, but he has said that his evolving positions stem from falling projections of oil revenue.
A month before Election Day, oil prices were $85. They fell to $60 in the two months leading up to Dunleavy’s inauguration, costing the state $1.5 billion in projected revenue.
“We thought that we might be able to do this with reductions and efficiencies within certain areas of state government,” Dunleavy said last month on Alaska Insight. “When we got into office in December, we were hit with oil prices in the fifties and some said it was going to go further south.”
Dunleavy was also clear about his priorities during the campaign, said spokesman Matt Shuckerow: He opposed taxes and supported boosting the Permanent Fund dividend. And he wanted to make government more efficient, Shuckerow added.
“He was going to take a different direction, and that was addressing the structural deficit that we have,” Shuckerow said. “Most people we’ve heard from, there’s an understanding that the governor’s following through.”
As a candidate, when Dunleavy was asked by reporters and moderators whether he would cut specific state services, Shuckerow noted, he often left a caveat in his answers.
In an August debate on TV station KTVA, for example, Dunleavy was asked whether he’d cut several different programs. His answer for public education: “Not at this time.” Pioneer Homes and the university system? “No, for now.”
Dunleavy’s February budget proposes a 40 percent cut, or $134 million, in state support for the university system — some 17 percent of the system’s total budget, when federal and other revenues are included. Dunleavy’s administration is proposing to double the fees billed to some Pioneer Home residents, so that the state can reduce subsidies for the program. Per-student spending on public schools would fall by about one-fourth.
[Alaska’s governor and Legislature ready for a legal fight over education funding]
Meanwhile, Dunleavy pointed repeatedly on the campaign trail to at least $100 million — sometimes he said it was nearly $200 million — in spending that he said he could eliminate by getting rid of vacant positions in the state budget. Dunleavy, in an appearance on Talk of Alaska, said he was referring to a budgeting technique called the “vacancy factor.”
In fact, the vacancy factor is a multiplier that state agencies were already using to reduce spending, to account for employee turnover.
The Legislature’s nonpartisan budget analysts, in a presentation last year, said it’s a “myth” and “simply untrue” that there are hundreds of millions of dollars in savings associated with the vacancy factor. And when Dunleavy released his budget in February, it did not include the savings from the vacancy factor that he referenced on the campaign trail.
Political blogger Dermot Cole has been highlighting that discrepancy, along with many of Dunleavy’s other campaign statements, since the governor unveiled his budget. In an interview, Cole described them as “impossible promises.”
“The Dunleavy campaign was more or less a fiscal fantasy from beginning to end that was able to exist because it wasn’t challenged by the press,” he said. “All of these assertions should have been treated with skepticism.”
Shuckerow said he hadn’t reviewed Dunleavy’s specific statements about the vacancy factor. But he said that the governor’s budget does reflect “significant changes to programs and operations.”
“This is all part of a broader conversation based on the information that we have about expenditures and revenues,” Shuckerow said.
Dunleavy’s political opponents have continually cited his shifting rhetoric in their criticism of his budget proposal — most recently, in a video released Monday that features labor leader Vince Beltrami.
“Dunleavy didn’t say he was going to devastate all the state services most Alaskans care about,” Beltrami said.
But one Republican leader, Sen. Bert Stedman of Sitka, said he’s trying not to dwell on statements that were made months ago.
“I’m more concerned about putting an operating budget together in the Senate and working on the issues with the House than worried about particular political campaign promises,” said Stedman, co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee.
Even Spohnholz, the Democratic representative, acknowledged that her constituents are more focused on Dunleavy’s current proposals than on what the governor said during the campaign.
But she also argued that the governor’s lack of detail on the campaign trail means that he has less of a mandate for his budget now that he’s in office.
“What the governor campaigned on was a full dividend,” Spohnholz said. “He didn’t campaign on the cuts that he’s proposing.”
This story originally appeared on Alaska’s Energy Desk and is republished with permission.