Sixty-two Sitkans joined the chorus of Alaskans mostly opposed to deep budget cuts proposed by the Dunleavy administration. Their primary argument: A large, retroactive Permanent Fund Dividend check this fall would not compensate Alaskans for the job losses and cuts to services if the governor’s economic vision was allowed to become reality.
Members of the House Finance Committee spread out across the state over the weekend to take testimony on the governor’s budget in a series of town hall meetings.
Sitka’s was held on Sunday afternoon (3-24-19).
Clear blue skies and warm temperatures didn’t do much to calm the tempers of Sitkans unhappy with the proposed elimination of the Marine Highway System, one-quarter of the school system, the sale of the Sheldon Jackson Museum, or other major cuts proposed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy to close the state’s budget deficit of $1.6 billion, and still pay every resident a Permanent Fund Dividend of $3,000.
Everyone who packed Harrigan Centennial Hall favored paying something to maintain core government services, rather than being paid off with the promise of a hefty dividend check.
Resident Sam Skaggs makes his living in finance. He believes that the governor’s budget, if enacted, would bring Alaska’s economy to a halt
“This is a turning point in our state. It really is,” said Skaggs. “We have to solve the budget issue. But you showed that there are options here. I don’t need the PFD. I know a lot of people need that. I’d like to see some PFD. There has to be a compromise here. Because if you hollow out our education, we’ve stolen from the next generation. It’s a 25-percent cut. It’s 25 teachers in Sitka. That’s not just teachers, that’s families. That’s the backbone of our future. We can’t do this.”
Opposition to deep cuts runs across the political spectrum. At a similar town hall meeting held in Anchorage — the economic seat of the state’s petroleum industry — 90-percent of those testifying opposed the governor’s plans. In Ketchikan, likewise there was significant conservative opposition.
Locally, Kevin Mosher is one of Sitka’s most conservative assembly members. As an accountant, Mosher backs a more liberal fiscal plan for the state.
“I’m not in favor of a retroactive PFD,” he said. “I’m not in favor of cuts to the budget, so that would mean a modified, or smaller, PFD. I think cost-shifting to municipalities would be devastating, obviously. For the future, I think that we need to consider a state income tax, also a school tax. This signifies a buy-in.”
The irony in the current political debate is that Alaska is not broke — far from it. Susan Brant-Ferguson is a music teacher at Keet Gooshi Heen, but she reframed the problem like an economist.
“Alaska is not in as fiscal crisis,” explained Brant-Ferguson. “We have over $60 billion in our Permanent Fund. This fund was created to prevent waste. It was created for harder times. It was not created solely for the October checks that are a bonus to some, and a lifesaver to others. Alaska is in a time of change. A time when our fiscal situation requires us all to clarify our priorities. My priorities are education, public health, public safety, and transportation — which in Southeast Alaska means ferries. I value these enough to pay. I strongly support a three-tiered solution: Modest dividend checks, so that some of the fund earnings can be used for essential services, modest income tax paid by those who can afford it, and modest budget cuts. Not the draconian, economy-destroying cuts suggested by Gov. Dunleavy. Please be our voice, and the voice of our children who deserve to be educated, protected, and supported by their Alaska state government.”
The 62 Sitkans who testified objected to many aspects of Gov. Dunleavy’s plans to reduce spending: Cuts to education, the university system, Medicaid, the Pioneer Homes, and the elimination of the Marine Highway and Public Broadcasting. There was broad support for some combination of taxation and the permanent fund to keep government services intact, while making sensible cuts.
But there were some aspect of the budget that struck many as senseless.
“Frederick Olsen, Jr.,” introduced himself in English and in Haida.
Namely, the proposal to sell the Sheldon Jackson Museum.
“I guess one of the last straws for me with this budget proposal was when he started talking about selling off museums,” said Olson. He went on. “When you start to talk about this — or even take it seriously — you’re really feeding into this colony mindset. And you see the embedded conflicts of interest where on the one side you see oil payoffs, and on the left side, society.”
And the 2-and-a-half hour meeting was not without some humor — and even some constructive thinking, supplied by Mt. Edgecumbe teacher Paul Fitzgibbon and boat builder Mike Litman.
“I’d just like to thank Gov. Dunleavy for unifying this community. (Audience laughter) I’m a Social Studies teacher and I teach my students to analyze. I have two columns: A lot of room on one and not a lot on the other,” said Fitzgibbon.
And Litman: “I think the legislature should allow him to test his ideas on one or two governmental functions. For example, the governor’s house and the Office of the Governor. (Audience laughter) Cut their budgets 41-percent and try it for a year or two. See if that unleashes the magic of prosperity and productivity.”
The Sitka town hall meeting was one of 8 held around the state by members of the House Finance Committee. Sitka’s was chaired by committee member Dan Ortiz, and Independent from Ketchikan. Ortiz was joined by Sitka Democratic Representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, and Anchorage Democratic Sen. Tom Begich.