Update 6/30/2019: Governor Dunleavy line-item vetoed $444 million from the 2019-20 state budget. The Alaska Legislature has until July 12 to override some or all of the cuts.
(In this post I am expressing my personal views only as a private citizen and resident of Alaska.)
Original April 13 post: On Monday I attended the Greater Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce lunch with Alaska Governor Michael Dunleavy. He spoke about his proposed state budget and the principles on which it is based. I was heartened that the Governor spoke respectfully of his predecessor Bill Walker and his efforts to solve the budget problem. He was also, on the whole, respectful of the many suggestions he has received for resolving the problem—save for a brief allusion to the suggestion that a state income tax be established. Through charts in his presentation and in a brochure he distributed, “A Statewide Discussion for a Permanent Fiscal Plan,” Governor Dunleavy compared the likely outcomes of continuing on our present course, and implementing his proposed budget.
The Governor accepted questions after his talk. People spoke movingly about how proposed cuts to the ferry system, K-12 education and the University of Alaska would affect Ketchikan and other communities throughout Alaska. The Governor listened, but his answers increasingly deflected responsibility for determining how to accomplish the cuts to municipalities, the University system, and school districts. I had the impression that he felt that by proposing this budget he had done his job, and now it was up to others—the Legislature, municipalities, school districts, and voters—to figure out how to administer the cuts.
I respectfully disagree. With any budget the devil is in the details, and developing strategies to create more efficient, cost-effective systems is virtually impossible under the strain of severe cuts. In fact the time and expertise necessary to analyze and recommend efficiencies often require additional one-time funding. It is essential that these discussions be held locally with the institutions involved and with community members. But the Governor, his executive team and members of the Legislature must be part of these discussions, both to ensure that local efforts are coordinated at the state level, and to provide the Governor with detailed information on the feasibility of the cuts he proposes, and the impact they will have on Alaska’s communities and economic future.
This detailed information is vital because the Governor’s proposed budget includes several untested assumptions.
One assumption is that the proposed cuts will have little negative impact on the economic health of Alaska’s communities. It seems at least a possibility, though, that the changes proposed in the Alaska Marine Highway System, for example, will significantly increase the cost of living and doing business in Southeast Alaska, and negatively affect the quality of life for those who live here. This is a possibility worth exploring in depth before making the changes.
In response to a question about the effect of budget cuts on education, the Governor noted that in a recent study Alaska’s K-12 education was ranked 45th out of 50 states. He told an anecdote about an Alaska school district in which a new administrative office was created, as an example of wasteful spending in education. The Governor’s point seemed to be that the belt-tightening made necessary by the proposed budget cuts would lead to leaner, better school systems.
Certainly any organization can benefit from periodic adjustments to increase cost effectiveness. However, the severe cuts in K-12 education proposed in the Governor’s budget, instead of producing a more efficient educational system, will almost certainly lead to a devastating increases in class size, decreases in classroom resources and crushing workloads on teachers and local administrators. Many of Alaska’s teachers will find jobs elsewhere with better pay and more educational resources, and it will be almost impossible to attract qualified replacements. All this will lead to a reduction in the quality of Alaska schools, making it more difficult than it is now to attract workers to the state.
The proposed cuts in the University of Alaska system would have similar devastating effects on the quality of life in Alaska. The Governor’s plan for the UA system appears to be limited to a robust marine science program and possibly (although he did not state this in the meeting) vocational programs. Marine science is of vital concern in this state, as are strong vocational training programs. However, these programs cannot exist on their own, absent a strong general education program that provides context and a deep understanding of the underlying issues that affect our state, our nation and our world. The world-class University system that Alaskans need and deserve, cannot be reduced to a single program or group of programs and remain world-class.
The Governor’s budget was developed with the assumption that cheap electricity, a full Permanent Fund Dividend check and no state income tax are more important to the majority of Alaskans than education, affordable transportation and lower local tax rates. The commitment to avoid taxing Alaskans is clear in the Governor’s brochure; but it is not clear that this commitment extends to avoiding the necessity of raising local taxes to partially offset deep cuts in the state budget.
I applaud Governor Dunleavy’s clear description of the budget challenges facing Alaska. But only a thorough analysis of the impact of the Governor’s proposed cuts, with the active participation of Alaska residents, communities, local and state officials, will lead to a budget that is effective in strengthening Alaska’s economic condition. Indeed, strong state support for local educational institutions and infrastructure is a necessary condition of growing a robust, sustainable state economy.
An analysis of the effects of Governor Dunleavy’s budget will take time and money. But with Alaska’s long-term economic health at stake, it must be done. And as the state’s chief executive, the Governor’s role in this is to take the lead, and the responsibility, for the whole of this process—at the state, regional and local level. By listening and working closely with Alaskans—all Alaskans—to develop and implement a feasible and sustainable budget plan, Governor Dunleavy may yet accomplish his goal of ensuring a strong economic future for Alaska.