FAIRBANKS — Gov. Mike Dunleavy told reporters last week that he wants a balanced budget right away, echoing the remarks of his imported budget director from outside.
If he is serious about cutting $1.5 billion from state spending next summer — give or take a few hundred million — Alaska Republicans will no longer have the luxury of hiding behind the “right-size government” mantra.
If he is serious, it will make life difficult for himself, every member of the Legislature, every local government, every school district and everyone who lives in Alaska.
The claim from Tuckerman Babcock, the governor’s chief of staff, that Dunleavy promised cuts of this magnitude during his campaign is nonsense.
“He wants to do exactly what he said he would do in the campaign,” Babcock told Unitarians recently in Anchorage, according to an account in the Anchorage Daily News. “There are a lot of people in Alaska who aren’t going to like what he promised to do.”
It is too soon for Babcock to try to sell that revisionist history.
Dunleavy said during his campaign he would cut the budget by a few hundred million, though he never explained what he wanted to cut, which made those comments suspect.
What Dunleavy offered during his campaign as proposed budget cuts were laughable—such as the nonexistent $4.5 million commuter rail study or the false claim that the state funds 2,000 jobs that were intentionally kept vacant.
To get a reduction of $1.5 billion or so, the state could shut down the University of Alaska, close the Department of Transportation, lay off thousands of workers, force the closure of dozens of schools, suspend payments that help local governments cover retirement costs and still not hit the target.
Another option would be to fire every state employee. Or the state could require across-the-board cuts that would cripple every state service or transfer all kinds of new costs to local governments.
Dunleavy’s new remarks on the budget, reported by Alaska Public Media, echoed those of Donna Arduin, the Republican budget director imported from Outside to show Alaskans how it’s done.
“I don’t believe in budgeting towards hoping revenues go up,” Arduin said in an interview with the Alaska Journal of Commerce. “The budget should be steady and predictable, so we shouldn’t budget hoping that we’re going to get more revenues next year.”
“I enjoy the challenge and working with fiscally conservative governors to make sure that — in most states it’s taxpayers; here it’s dividend recipients and hopefully not future taxpayers — are first and foremost at every policy table and every policy discussion,” Arduin said.
More than two years ago Dunleavy said the annual state budget needed to be cut by $1.1 billion over a four-year period, but he never provided any specifics.
During his campaign for governor he said the rise in oil prices in 2018 had made his idea of $1.1 billion in cuts irrelevant and unnecessary.
But oil prices collapsed again in October, and Dunleavy now says the budget has to be cut by $1.5 billion to get the general fund down to about $3.2 billion.
This should remind everyone how foolish it is for Alaska to make financial plans based on daily oil prices, but the state budget cycle is like the movie “Groundhog Day,” a drama that repeats itself over and over.
A couple of years ago Dunleavy said that Alaska’s elected officials should agree in advance on how much money can be spent. He said that way politicians wouldn’t always get hit with, “What do you want to cut?” as the first question.
“It’s a lockbox. And then you kind of duke it out, if you need to ... inside that lockbox,” said Dunleavy, channeling former lockbox leader Al Gore in that 2016 interview.
But there is no lockbox to protect politicians from the tension created by public expectations about government services and the need to pay for them.
What do you want to cut? That is the first question.
Dermot Cole is a longtime Alaskan, an author of several history books and a former Daily News-Miner staff columnist. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.