When he introduced his budget in February, Gov. Mike Dunleavy did not say he wanted to start a conversation.
“I promised to fix our budget and I will keep my promise to Alaskans,” he said. “We will fix the budget and we will fix it this year.”
This was the occasion at which temporary budget director Donna Arduin introduced herself to Alaska by frequently talking about “our” fiscal problems and declaring, “The cost to transport a vehicle on a state highway is about 2 cents per mile, where it’s about $4.58 per mile on a ferry.”
“We’re here to solve our problems, not to ask Alaskans to do it for us,” she said, touching on the plan to gut the University of Alaska, K-12 schools and Medicaid, while sending 500 prisoners out of state and getting rid of the ferry system.
To its credit, the Legislature rejected almost everything proposed by Dunleavy and Arduin, but the governor wanted to end the budget conversation with his vetoes on June 28.
“These vetoes should not come as a surprise to Alaskans as they have been part of our proposal since February,” he said.
Conversation closed. He said he had no intention of backing down. “These are difficult times that require difficult decisions,” he said.
He defended the vetoes in the days that followed, saying they “were needed to start the process of right-sizing government.”
But here we are a few weeks later, with the recall conversation proceeding at a record pace. Dunleavy now says he wants to parley with the people.
It’s a little late for him to start.
Until the recall, he was content to rule by veto. Public testimony was never on his side.
A majority of legislators wanted to override Dunleavy, but they fell short of the three-quarters majority needed to do that. So a majority of legislators tried again and reversed many of the Dunleavy vetoes by passing a budget bill.
He has now demonstrated, by refusing to repeat some of his vetoes, that his plan to gut the University of Alaska was a bad one. He isn’t admitting that, of course.
But the restoration of $110 million to the university and more than $40 million for other programs shows that the recall campaign has forced a change in direction. His decision not to veto the Senior Benefits Program a second time is more evidence.
The recall has proved to be the only effective means of capturing Dunleavy’s attention, the start of a statewide conversation that he can’t ignore as easily as public testimony.
If the recall does not continue, Dunleavy may try to move ahead with his plans to cut $330 million from K-12 schools in 2020 as well as seek future cuts to the university, attempt to confiscate hundreds of millions in local tax revenue and reduce health care for the poor by pushing Medicaid cuts.
Dunleavy claims that only after he made his vetoes in June did Alaskans realize he was serious about cutting the budget and give him the feedback he needed to force him to reverse himself on some key issues.
“You don’t get to this point unless you veto,” Dunleavy said last week.
He should have said, “You don’t get to this point unless you recall.”
Dermot Cole is a longtime Alaskan, an author of several history books, and a former Daily News-Miner staff columnist who now writes an occasional column on Alaska politics and history. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.