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8/20/2019
Backtracking

Monday’s budget announcement by Gov. Mike Dunleavy re-emphasized just how woeful a start that this governor has had.

Dunleavy campaigned for office promising a “full” permanent fund dividend while trimming government spending with vague reductions — no concrete details before the elections, mind you. Trust me.

What followed the elections has been a stunning display of ineptitude, starting with Dunleavy’s proposed state budget that dropped on Feb. 12. Packed with cuts such as effectively ending the Alaska Marine Highway System operations as of Sept. 30 and preparing to sell off AMHS ships and terminals, the Dunleavy budget contained no coherent rationale besides cuts for the sake of cuts. During legislative inquiries, Dunleavy administration officials practically boasted that they had not analyzed the potential effects of the proposed budget actions.

Everyday Alaskans were shaken by immediate uncertainties, which are affecting business and life decisions across the state as people try to figure out what a Dunleavy Alaska will look like in the near, mid and long term. An astute politician — someone with leadership abilities and a shred of empathy — would have taken a different approach to achieve the desired goals. Dunleavy was not that leader, however. Even after dropping the budget bomb, Dunleavy could barely get out from behind his hired-gun officials and cherry-picked audiences to stump for “his” budget plan, relying almost solely on the “red pen” stunt to signal to the Legislature and everyone else that it was going to be Dunleavy’s way or no way. The message that came through loudest and clearest was that people shouldn’t bother asking about the effects of the proposed cuts because the administration didn’t know and didn’t really care.

The result of this one track lack of leadership was seen in the early response to the recall effort. More than 29,500 Alaskans of nearly all political stripes signed the recall paperwork in two weeks time.

That seemed to get Dunleavy’s attention somewhat, as he backtracked on several of his vetoes in recent days. Then on Monday, he announced, via a prerecorded video, several other veto reversals while maintaining about $222 million in vetoes and accepting a permanent fund dividend of $1,600.

The $1,600 PFD is a slap to a section of Dunleavy’s staunchest supporters who wanted the governor to stand firm for a PFD of $3,000. Having to backtrack on the full PFD after making it the cornerstone of his campaign and then his budget positions during the past six months illustrates the scale of Dunleavy’s political miscalculation. Now burned, those supporters likely will be reluctant to trust Dunleavy a second time.

Dunleavy’s video provided — somewhat — a recognition that things have not gone well.

“I understand that this budget approach and timing, being so late in the legislative year, caused significant angst among Alaskans, I really do,” Dunleavy said. “This was certainly not our intention.”

To say that causing angst was unintended is disingenuous at best. But, of course, the whole thing wasn’t really his doing, anyway.

“Certain programs, programs we value, got caught in a budget discussion that went on way too long,” Dunleavy continued. “The seriousness of the deficit, the need to begin making reforms and the length of our legislative session all contributed to the level of uncertainty we experienced the past several months.”

And, also of course, he’ll do better next time.

“We have listened and we have learned from this past year's budget process,” Dunleavy said.

Time will tell. Meanwhile, Alaskans will be sorting through the aftermath of this budget process and wondering what Dunleavy will do next. If he is unable to articulate a vision for a viable Alaska and exhibit the leadership and political skills to engage Alaskans constructively, the recall effort could very well overcome the high barriers placed before it.