Hundreds of people packed rooms in Anchorage and Eagle River on Saturday to criticize Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposed budget to lawmakers returning home from Juneau.
In Anchorage, one of several places across Alaska where state lawmakers hosted town hall meetings on Saturday, a bipartisan group of 15 lawmakers from both legislative houses listened for an hour as constituents — packed so tightly into the room that the fire marshal would only allow the crowd to stay if all the doors were kept open — voiced their frustration with state government.
At a filled Chugiak-Eagle River Senior Center in reliably conservative Chugiak, comments aimed at the area’s Republican delegation ran roughly 2-to-1 against Dunleavy’s spending plan, with most of those against saying they’re most concerned with potential cuts to education.
Most who came to the town halls opposed Dunleavy’s budget proposal, which would cut more than $1.6 billion in state spending, much of that coming from public education and health care services. Using words like “draconian” and “morally bankrupt," the overflowing group of constituents urged lawmakers not to accept the proposal.
At the center of the discussion sat the Dunleavy administration’s proposal to make sweeping cuts to the state’s education budget, slashing $310 million from the Department of Education and Early Development and an additional $134 million from the University of Alaska.
Holly Martinson, an assistant professor of molecular biology at the University of Alaska Anchorage, said her students have become anxious about their futures under the proposed cuts.
“I feel like I need to speak out for them,” Martinson said.
Republican Rep. Jennifer Johnston told constituents that while she supported Dunleavy’s “zero base” approach to resolving the state’s deficit, which would rebuild the budget from the ground up, she doesn’t agree with the outcome.
“No governor’s budget is good, to be honest with you, and governors do not have the power of appropriation,” Johnston said.
Some constituents urged lawmakers to disregard the Dunleavy budget altogether and instead use former Gov. Bill Walker’s proposed budget, which he drafted as a suggestion to the incoming governor, as a starting point. Walker’s budget included increased spending and slightly higher Permanent Fund dividend, though the increase in the dividend wasn’t as much as Dunleavy’s proposal.
Sen. Natasha von Imhof, the Republican co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee, told constituents in a later session that she didn’t believe it was legal for the legislature to disregard Dunleavy’s budget proposal.
Other people, like hospitality professional Audrey Saylor, encouraged lawmakers to levy a progressive income tax rather than cut public services.
"As a single mother, when I didn’t have enough money, I cut back a little, but I got another job,” Saylor said. “I didn’t starve my children because there wasn’t enough money. I found other revenue.”
Many at the Anchorage hearing said they would be open to a reduced Permanent Fund dividends if it meant public services would remain funded, something Republican Rep. Laddie Shaw said he supported. The PFD payment for the upcoming budget year is estimated at about $3,000 per Alaskan, a totaling about $1.9 billion.
[Support independent local journalism in Alaska. Subscribe to the Anchorage Daily News / adn.com]
“My district stands up for the value of giving for what they get, instead of the value of taking what you would like to have,” Shaw said.
Some support governor’s plan
In Chugiak — where voters chose Dunleavy by wide margins in the 2018 election — the chorus against budget cuts wasn’t as loud but was as pointed.
“We need to invest in the people of Alaska,” said Diane Erickson, one of several who spoke in favor of using either the PFD or new taxes to help pay for state government.
Eighth-grader Remy Gray said she’s worried less education spending will result in a worse classroom experience.
“If you cut from my school district you’re going to cut from my education and I don’t want that,” said the Mirror Lake Middle School student.
Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Chugiak/Mat-Su, acknowledged some cuts may go too far and reminded people the budget process has only just begun. However, she did say she supports the need to make cuts.
“We have too small a population so support such a large government,” Hughes said.
Not everyone at the Chugiak meeting was against the governor’s proposed budget. About a third of those who spoke at Saturday’s meeting said they think Dunleavy’s budget was long overdue.
Eagle River’s Elaine Pfeiffer said she thinks legislators should carefully scrutinize the budget but shouldn’t let public sentiment get in the way of passing a balanced spending plan.
“I don’t want everything he has been done to be rejected out of hand,” Pfeiffer said.
Thomas Williams pushed back at those who believe the PFD should be used to fund state government.
“I’m absolutely in favor of the PFD being put into the hands of private citizens,” he said.
Near the conclusion of the meeting — which was extended by 45 minutes to let everyone speak — Ken Kramer said he thinks the proposed budget has already produced at least one positive outcome.
“I applaud the governor for what he’s doing because this is the most I’ve seen at a town hall meeting,” Kramer said.