If any of our legislators fail to stand behind the hard work they just did on crafting a budget and override Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s vetoes, they will go down in history as those who sold out the welfare of the state and its citizens. They will be remembered not only for the destruction of the state’s university system but also for disproportionately punishing lower-income Alaskans by ending benefits to seniors, ending the Head Start program and Alaska Legal Services Corp., drastically underfunding homeless assistance programs and cutting adult public assistance payments to needy aged, blind and disabled Alaskans. They will have blood on their hands from their failure to adequately fund public safety. They will also be responsible for the return of Alaska to full-blown colonial status.
When Earnest Gruening opened the 1955 Constitutional Convention with a keynote address entitled “Let us End American Colonialism,” it is doubtful he would have expected to see Alaska returning to colonial conditions more than 60 years later. The framers of the Alaska Constitution obviously considered education to be a vital part of state-building because they included both public education and a state university (along with public health and welfare) in Article VII of our Constitution. We would be selling short the men and women who gave us our Constitution if we were to assume they meant inadequate public education or anything less than a fully functioning competitive university when they did their work.
The cuts to our university will leave us as the only state in the union without a fully functioning state university system, a real embarrassment to Alaska, and certainly not a positive message to those who might want to invest here. Even the earliest colonizers in North America understood the value of higher education and its importance to a functioning democracy. Harvard University was founded in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1636 followed by the College of William and Mary in Virginia in 1693. Both institutions provided education to colonists and American Indians.
Literacy has long been deemed essential to building civil society, and the lack thereof has sometimes been used as a reason to prevent certain groups in our nation from participating in the franchise, including groups within Alaska. People throughout Alaska have made many sacrifices in order to make sure their children were properly educated. The idea that we would not now provide Alaskans with a solid foundation for literacy via Head Start, early childhood education, good K-12 schools and then a world-class university calls into question just exactly who and what the governor’s “budget” is supposed to serve. Certainly it cannot be the residents of our state.
I do not believe that the governor does not understand the economic value of higher education (or that of K-12 schooling, seniors’ benefits, VPSOs, Medicaid, the state ferry system, etc.), nor do I think that most legislators are blind to what these irresponsible vetoes will do throughout Alaska. The gutting of the university system will have a domino effect, not only in Fairbanks and Anchorage but also throughout the remainder of the state. Property values and local businesses will all suffer as a result. Throw in all the other cuts to basic services, and Alaska will become a very unpleasant place to live and do business. Failure to properly fund education will affect many future generations and will not provide the kind of workforce needed by investors. Poorly educated Alaskans will be unable to contribute to meaningful community development and the building of civil society, and they will be unable to compete in the marketplace. If this is what the governor and those legislators who support his vetoes want, then they need to provide an honest explanation beyond “balancing the budget” and “full PFDs” as to why this destruction is acceptable.
The governor has said repeatedly that he wants to hear from “the people,” but it is apparent that he only listens to a certain segment of the population. The rest of “the people,” those of us ready and willing to accept smaller PFDs and to pay some taxes to help provide the services we all need, are here too. We do not want to see our state regress to colonial status, and we expect our elected officials to prevent that from happening. We want to keep our jobs, university, schools, public services and law enforcement. Legislators should do their job and override all these vetoes, decide on a PFD we can actually afford, and find other revenue sources. They should stand by their budget.
Jenny Bell-Jones is chair emeritus of the Department of Alaska Native Studies and Rural Development at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. This column represents her own opinion and not that of the department.