Alaska governor fires back at AFN over criticism of his budget

In a pointed letter to the head of the state’s largest Alaska Native organization, Gov. Mike Dunleavy took issue with the assertion that his proposed budget cuts were divisive and said the group hasn’t offered a valid solution to the state’s fiscal crisis.

Turning the tables on the Alaska Federation of Natives, Dunleavy asked AFN president Julie Kitka how the group will address problems plaguing Alaska, including domestic violence and sexual assault among Alaska Natives.

"Your characterization that my administration is responsible for ‘divisive rhetoric’ is in and of itself divisive and wholly unfounded,” Dunleavy wrote in the May 24 correspondence, obtained by the Daily News through a public-records request.

Speaking with a reporter on Wednesday, Kitka said the governor’s letter contains “misinformation and misunderstandings” of AFN’s position.

“But we do welcome the governor’s intent behind the letter, which we believe is that he wants to open up a dialogue,” she said.

The dispute appears to date back to February, when AFN publicly called Dunleavy’s massive proposed budget cuts “contentious and ill-advised." AFN said they appeared “divisive by design."

Dunleavy’s two-page letter is part of an ongoing dialogue between the governor, his staff, and AFN leadership, said Matt Shuckerow, a spokesman for the governor. The governor’s office has met with AFN leaders at least seven times, he said.

The letter references an April 16 letter from Kitka to the governor. In it, Kitka said Dunleavy and his administration have not “satisfactorily” described his positions. His top officials haven’t properly supported claims that the Legislature recklessly wasted money starting in 2008 during an era of high state revenues, her letter argued. She suggested the governor’s approach is “misguided” and asked him to “put aside the divisive rhetoric."

The Legislature recently passed an operating budget with much smaller cuts than the governor proposed. The governor has the option to accept or reject it, or veto portions of it.

AFN represents about 140,000 Alaska Natives, about 20 percent of the state’s population.

Dunleavy wrote in the letter that he and his staff have met “with open minds" with AFN leaders. But Kitka’s solutions to closing the state’s $1.6 billion deficit have been “absent."

He wrote that Kitka suggested in her April 16 letter that the state use the “entire (Alaska) Permanent Fund account” to pay for government. Dunleavy said such an idea is “unconstitutional” and he and most Alaskans aren’t interested in it.

Kitka said Wednesday AFN has never supported that approach. Her two-page letter mentioned the $65 billion Permanent Fund once. She wrote that Alaska is not poor and cannot “cut its way to prosperity.” The letter does not propose using the fund to pay for state government.

Kitka on Wednesday declined to describe what she said were other errors in the governor’s letter. AFN doesn’t want to publicly “engage in a back and forth” over the letter’s details, she said.

“We look forward to sitting down in person with him,” she said.

In the letter, Dunleavy listed his proposed constitutional amendments to limit government spending, enshrine the traditional payout formula for the Permanent Fund dividend, and require voters to approve new or increased taxes.

Dunleavy suggested Kitka doesn’t support those plans.

“We believe that opposition to allowing Alaskans to be involved in their long-term fiscal plan cannot be explained unless it is that you do not trust the people of Alaska, which, if true, is disappointing," Dunleavy wrote.

Kitka said on Wednesday that AFN has not taken a position on the constitutional amendments.

“We’re studying them very closely and putting together pros and cons on them,” she said.

Summing up, the governor wrote that he’s interested in “finding solutions to the issues that plague Alaska.” He asked Kitka how AFN will combat problems including low student achievement in rural Alaska, domestic violence and sexual assault among Natives, and the state’s fiscal challenges.

“You have called my approach ‘misguided’ -- I think it only just to expect you to productively outline your approach,” he wrote.

Kitka said the 38-member AFN board has discussed the governor’s letter and will respond to it.

“We know there’s not the resources for the state to do everything we’ve done in the past, and that priorities have to be set,” she said. “(But) we have to be very careful setting those priorities so that we don’t have unintended consequences.”

Shuckerow, Dunleavy’s spokesman, said Wednesday the letter speaks for itself. He said the administration and AFN will keep meeting. That includes regular conversations between the governor’s policy adviser, John Moller, and AFN board members, he said.

“This is only one small portion of a dialogue that continues. We have folks on staff that work closely with that organization,” he said.

Kitka said AFN’s annual statewide convention in October, attended by thousands of Alaska Natives, will focus on “what makes a good government that is responsive to its people." It will highlight the need for Alaskans to engage in the political process to help determine state priorities.

The convention will be called “Good Government, Alaskan Driven."

Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or alex@adn.com.