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In less than a week — at some point before or on Wednesday — Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy is expected to roll out his proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year.
Just what Dunleavy’s proposed budget will contain remains a mystery. Perhaps the bigger mystery at this point is what the proposed budget will not contain.
By now, most Alaskans have heard that the State of Alaska government anticipates another substantial deficit. Dunleavy announced in December that his administration had “inherited” a deficit of $1.6 billion from the previous governor.
His administration would be drafting a revised budget to “reign in state spending and prioritize the core services and programs that really matter to Alaskans,” according to the Dec. 14 statement.
The statement also included comments from Donna Arduin, Dunleavy’s new director of the Alaska Office of Management and Budget.
“All items of state expenditures are on the table,” Arduin said in the statement. “The state must learn to live within its means and we get there by making the tough spending choices.”
The statement included this promise: “The Dunleavy administration’s revised budget will be predictable, sustainable and realistic.”
Few people would find fault with predictable, sustainable and realistic budgeting.
Applying those concepts to state government budgets successfully requires a thorough understanding of services and programs and the likely effects of all budget decisions.
In this regard, the administration’s recent roll-out of its proposed supplemental budget for the current fiscal year is not encouraging.
Dunleavy’s proposed supplemental budget would, in part, cut $20 million for education. These are funds that the Alaska Legislature had already approved — and school districts around the state had already budgeted for the current school year.
Dunleavy’s budget proposal took legislators and school district officials around the state by surprise.
On Wednesday, Michael Johnson, Dunleavy’s new commission for the Department of Education and Early Development, told the Senate Finance Committee that he didn’t consult with any districts ahead of the $20 million budget-cut proposal, according to KTOO.
Arduin herself heard from House representatives at an informal meeting on Thursday, taking questions from Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan, and others about whether she understood the impacts of the proposed cut. According to Matt Buxton, the former Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reporter who now covers Alaska government with The Midnight Sun blog, Arduin was “insistent that it’s not her job to understand how cutting $20 million from schools would impact them.”
This is not a position consistent with “tough spending choices.” A tough choice would be one in which you understood the impacts, the pros and cons, the benefits and drawbacks. Otherwise, it’s just playing with numbers.
This also would not be a predictable budget practice. A blindside is a blindside. After this, legislative budget action would be an empty exercise, with budgeting subject only to executive whim, and funding only really available once it’s actually in the bank.
This would not entail a state prioritization of core services and programs. This is a: “Here’s the cut, you figure it out.”
If this is the process by which far larger budget cuts are being decided for Dunleavy’s upcoming proposed budget, then the terms “realistic” and “sustainable“ are also in question.
An understanding of the impacts is imperative in developing anything that could be considered realistic and sustainable.
If this administration of fresh faces and hired guns doesn’t believe it necessary to seek out information to comprehend effects of immense budget cuts, Alaska is in deep trouble.
We’re all for fiscal sanity and living within means. But the difference between a sharp scalpel in the hands of a surgeon who understands every cut and a dull instrument wielded with blunt, indiscriminate force is immense.
The patient is much more likely to survive the former than the latter.