At a Head Start classroom in Anchorage on Tuesday morning, Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced he will restore $8.8 million in funding for early education services, reversing vetoes he made in June to the Legislature’s operating budget bill.
The items to be restored are $6.8 million in Head Start grants, $1.2 million in Early Childhood grants for public school districts, $474,000 to Parents as Teachers grants and $320,000 in Best Beginning grants.
Speaking to reporters and educators at Rural CAP, the largest provider of Head Start programs in Alaska, Dunleavy said his budget cuts launched a statewide conversation about what Alaskans value. The feedback led to his reversal on the early education vetoes, he said.
Those and lots of other vetoes, most of which are not expected to be reversed, were announced less than seven weeks ago on June 28.
“We didn’t dismiss any of that feedback at all,” he said. “We listened."
“What became pretty clear I think to everybody is that Alaskans value our elders, our seniors, and we value our children, our youngest, and that’s our future,” he said.
The funds for early education will be restored back to July 1, the start of the fiscal year, he said. They are “in addition to $2 million enacted in the fiscal year 2020 budget for pre-K grants, and $4.2 million in unspent grants carried forward from the fiscal year that ended in June,” the governor’s office said in a statement.
Tuesday’s announcement was the second in what’s expected to be a series of planned veto-restorations unveiled this week.
The governor’s vetoes, totaling more than $400 million, sparked widespread protests and a Recall Dunleavy effort that organizers say is rapidly gaining signatures.
Later Tuesday, Dunleavy announced his intention to replace his $130 million veto to the University of Alaska with a three-year, step-down plan that includes a $25 million reduction this year and an additional $45 million cut over the following two years.
And on Monday, the governor announced he would restore funding to the Alaska Senior Benefits Payment Program, an income-based program that sends out monthly payments to some of the state’s oldest residents.
The governor’s vetoes are intended to balance the state’s budget without cutting the Permanent Fund dividend, spending from savings or raising taxes. Announcing his vetoes in June, the governor said they were part of a two-year plan, and more cuts are expected next year.
The governor is expected to repeat most of his vetoes when he signs House Bill 2001 into law later this week. That bill, approved by the Legislature, would reverse all but $23.3 million of the governor’s June actions, but the governor may veto all or part of it.
'The idea is not to torture anyone...’
The vetoes sparked widespread uncertainty about whether cuts to state-funded programs would stand.
Rural CAP and other Head Start providers warned last month that the elimination of state funding for the early childhood education program would result in closing pre-K classrooms, cutting dozens of jobs and turning away some 500 of the state’s neediest students.
Rural CAP officials told a reporter on Tuesday that the governor’s vetoes removed $2.7 million in early education funding for the organization. The cuts put 256 children and their families at risk for losing early learning services in 10 locations.
About 69 employees risked losing jobs, said Kristin Ramstad, director of Rural CAP’s child development division.
In the end, four educators quit to accept other work, despite the organization’s efforts to prevent resignations amid the uncertainty that ended Tuesday, at least for the current fiscal year. The employees took with them 42 years of Head Start experience, Ramstad said.
Other worried employees have been looking for new work, she said.
Dunleavy said that he had hoped to get the operating budget from the Legislature, and have it completed, in April. But he received a final bill just this month, he said.
“The idea is not to torture anyone or bother folks,” he said. “We know that that was part of the outcome, but that was not the intent. Again we were hoping this would be done in the springtime.”
The exchange between the Legislature and governor has resembled a tennis match: The Legislature passed a budget, the governor vetoed part of it, lawmakers passed another bill reversing those vetoes, and now the governor is preparing to veto parts of that new bill while accepting others.
Dunleavy said the vetoes were necessary in order to spark a conversation. He said most Alaskans realize the state can’t continue spending its savings.
“Do I regret the angst people have gone through, well, sure,” he said. “But you could not get to this point, where folks are really talking to us about what really matters in Alaska, what folks really value, if we didn’t go through the process of reductions.”
Path for K-12 funding uncertain
The initial estimate of the June vetoes was $444 million, but according to a July 23 document from the Legislative Finance Division, the governor actually vetoed $420.7 million from the state operating and mental health budgets, and withheld another $30 million in K-12 funding over objections about its constitutionality.
The path ahead for K-12 funding remains uncertain. The governor and Legislature remain locked in a legal battle over the constitutionality of funding public schools in advance. The Legislature supports the idea, the governor opposes it. Tuesday’s announcement does not affect that conflict. As the courts decide who’s right, state funding continues to go out to school districts.
The early education money the governor will restore accounts for the majority of the $13.9 million vetoed by the governor from the budget of the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development in June. The governor did not announce changes to his plans to eliminate funding for the Alaska State Council on the Arts, the Online With Libraries internet-access subsidy, or the elimination of a homework-help telephone line.
Lawmakers attending the event Tuesday included Rep. Sara Rasmussen, R-Anchorage, her toddler-aged daughter in one arm and 3-year-old son tugging the other. She said after the announcement that she and others urged the governor to reverse the early education vetoes.
Early learning before the age of 5 is critical for brain development, she said. She agrees with some of the governor’s cuts, but not those.
“I see early childhood as an investment in the future,” she said.
Rep. Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, who co-chairs the House Children’s Caucus with Rasmussen to help prioritize family issues, said the veto reversal is “good news.”
He said everyone involved in this year’s budget process could have done a better job communicating.
Tuck said early learning programs pay off with higher achievement throughout life, he said.
“It’s one of the ways we get the best bang for the buck,” he said.
Dunleavy said he doesn’t plan to cut early childhood education in future years, though the state could be having a “different conversation” if oil prices crash.
“Not at this point,” he said. “We’re hoping to look at other efficiencies in the budget.”
-- ADN reporters James Brooks and Tegan Hanlon contributed.