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Of late, we’ve been thinking of Alaska’s great leaders; the ones who acted like one of us.
Former Gov. Walker J. Hickel and the late Sen. Ted Stevens quickly come to mind. As do others, and the moments when we saw their true colors. For example, when the beloved Stevens said: “To hell with politics. Just do what’s right for Alaska.”
And Hickel, an amateur boxer in his youth was always ready to fight for Alaska and Alaskans.
Former Gov. Bill Walker, an honorable gentleman if there ever was one. Former Gov. Tony Knowles, who’s lived most of his Alaska years in Anchorage, came around to try to get to know and work with Southeast Alaska; reluctantly in regard to the timber industry in the beginning, but he came around.
It’s no small number of us in Southeast — perhaps elsewhere, too — who wonder what — only a few months into Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration — we as Alaskans might have done differently in the past gubernatorial election season.
We see a governor who promised to “stand tall for Alaska” in his campaign literature. We have yet to see that in practice. We get it that he’s a tall man at 6-foot-7. But we don’t get his type of leadership, if, indeed, that’s what it’s called.
Let’s look at his short record in the Governor’s Mansion.
Gov. Dunleavy doesn’t shirk from pointing out that he inherited a $1.6 billion budget deficit. He has proposed a budget that he says will eliminate that deficit in his first year as governor.
Part of the budget proposal would destroy 20 percent of the Ketchikan economy, based on an estimation made by Sen. Bert Stedman, (R-Sitka). It would shut down the Alaska Marine Highway System headquartered in Ketchikan. It would deliver a yet-to-be-determined financial impact to the Ketchikan Shipyard, more than three decades and millions of dollars in the making. It would decimate the University of Alaska, particularly the Ketchikan branch. It would take away millions of dollars for Ketchikan schools in addition to removing other dollars currently directed toward local government.
The potential community wide devastation has prompted the Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly and the Ketchikan City Council to support a resolution against the budget.
Ketchikan isn’t alone. The proposed budget shocked communities across the state in much the same way, and surprised many legislators — Republicans, Democrats and Independents alike.
The governor allowed Alaskans to languish in concern— some in downright fear for their livelihood — for several weeks. Then he decided to put on a show next week.
Dunleavy’s “roadshow” was announced Monday. Initially, it was described as a “A Statewide Discussion for a Permanent Fiscal Plan.”
Except that it didn’t include all of the state. The stops announced included Kenai, Anchorage, Nome, Fairbanks and Mat-Su. Among other places, Southeast and most coastal communities affected by the highly controversial potential ferry system shutdown didn’t appear on the schedule.
By Wednesday, the governor’s press office had sent out a more specific schedule, along with a picture of Dunleavy addressing a group of Juneau residents earlier in the day. It was described as a preview of the roadshow.
It didn’t say who the group he addressed was. For all we know it might have been passengers from an early cruise ship stopping by the capitol for a tour. Nor could we find any media coverage of the event.
The transparency of Dunleavy’s roadshow came under scrutiny, as well.
Not mentioned in Dunleavy’s announcement is that the Americans for Prosperity-Alaska is involved in the organization of the roadshow, along with a few other organizations. Americans for Prosperity was founded by the multi-billionaire Koch Brothers. Outsiders. Information distributed by the group indicated that registration would be required for the limited space available for roadshow events. Personal recording devices and cell phones would be unwelcome. Can’t we politely ask Alaskans to turn off the phones’ ringers?
Once again, like the unveiling of Dunleavy’s proposed budget, the reveal of some of the upcoming events created alarm.
But, again still, by Wednesday’s press release the schedule had been specified. The events include a variety of radio appearances by the governor, as well as a mixture of private and public meetings, and an indication that the travel schedule might be expanded to other communities.
While the governor is entitled to meet privately with Alaskans, the appearance of that in a roadshow promoted as a discussion with Alaskans gives the perception of secrecy.
It also was revealed that the sponsors were necessary to eliminate the state’s facility costs connected with the roadshow. We can’t imagine that any community’s mayor wouldn’t take it upon himself to wave a facility charge for a governor who wanted to pay a visit and host an event to which all residents would be welcome.
Meanwhile, come Thursday night the governor’s press office confirmed that anonymous radio advertisements in Kenai, Wasilla and Fairbanks are “the work of the office of the governor.” The cost of the ads is $9,000. They encourage Alaskans to attend town hall meetings this weekend in support of Dunleavy’s plans in regard to the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend.
He campaigned for a full dividend, but testimony at previous public meetings has overwhelmingly been in support of lower dividends — at least temporarily — as part of a solution to the budget deficit.
Dunleavy is calling for a public vote before the Legislature could use the PFD to cover the costs of state government.
The governor also released what was described as a 10-year budget blueprint for Alaska this week. It’s described as his vision: “… small state government, more money in Alaskans’ pockets, new private sector investment and the resulting jobs.” Sounds like his campaign literature.
Many Alaskans don’t disagree with that, and rightly so. Government should be lean. Alaskans should thrive. But then he presents three alternative approaches to his budget proposal, none of which, he says, solves the deficit problem.
Apparently, his way is the only way.
This prompts the question of whether Dunleavy is creating a crisis.
Former Gov. Walker, a businessman like all but two of Alaska’s past governors, has already done the heaviest lifting in terms of the deficit. He started his term in 2014 with a $3.7 billion deficit; when it ended, the deficit sat at $1.6 billion — some say $700 million.
Walker did this with a steady hand on the state’s rudder. He was cool, collected, polite and gave the sense that he cared about Alaskans and Alaska.
He didn’t have much experience with working with a Legislature, but together they reduced the deficit.
The current Legislature is working to come up with a budget that Dunleavy will sign. If it’s to be successful, the budget also should be veto proof. The governor holds a veto pen. Given the way he presented his budget proposal and rolled out the roadshow, it wouldn’t come as a shock at this point if he used it without regard.
Perhaps the roadshow —as late as it is — is a result of Dunleavy’s investing $185,000 a year into a communications director. Advertising, marketing and political strategist Mary Ann Pruitt joined the staff. Her job has been described as “building out the governor’s communications team and the messaging behind his agenda.”
Finally, it’s curious in the midst of all of Dunleavy’s proposed budget cuts that the governor has had a hands-off approach with the oil industry. Is it because he knows that the tax credits the state granted the industry are effective? That they’ve incentivized exploration? That in a matter of years they will elevate Alaska’s revenue through increased production sufficiently to eliminate any future deficit? That the increased revenue will give the impression that he achieved Alaska’s financial stability through his response to the “crisis?”
Perhaps we sound wary of Dunleavy. We are. He campaigned supporting the ferry system. Once elected he immediately moved to shut it down, along with much of the economy. It’s difficult to trust a politician after that.
But time will tell with Dunleavy. His is a new administration, unlike any we’ve seen before.