Sen. Jesse Kiehl, and Representatives Sara Hannan and Dan Ortiz pulled no punches during the Legislative Leadership Forum at the 2019 meeting of the Southeast Conference. They argued that Gov. Dunleavy was “overcutting” agencies critical to the growth of the Alaskan economy. “The goal of government isn’t to be efficient — we want it to be efficient,” said Hannan, “our goal of governing should be to serve the needs of our state.” (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey

Some of Alaska’s newest legislators are concerned that the deep budget cuts being pursued by the Dunleavy administration will starve the state’s economy.

They spoke during a legislative leadership forum on Thursday (9-19-19) at the annual meeting of the Southeast Conference in Sitka.

Sen. Jesse Kiehl and Rep. Sara Hannan, both Democrats who represent northern Southeast Alaska and Juneau, and Rep. Dan Ortiz, an Independent who represents Ketchikan and some Prince of Wales communities, held the stage for half an hour at the Southeast Conference.

The trio didn’t pull their punches when it came to discussing Gov. Dunleavy’s efforts to cut the state budget by over $400 million. Ortiz, a third-term independent, called out the governor’s attempt to take 50-percent of raw fish taxes — historically collected by communities to support harbors and other infrastructure — and transfer them into the state budget. He also criticized the 20-percent cut to the Alaska Department of Fish & Game, which has impaired the agency’s constitutional mandate to manage the state’s fisheries. 

Ortiz suggested that the administration had overshot its goal of being efficient, and was doing harm.

“While I’m going to continue to be an advocate for efficiencies as we move forward,” Ortiz said, “we also need to make sure that in our attempt to achieve efficiencies we’re not overcutting these agencies that have a very important job that links directly into how our economy’s going to move forward in the future.”

Note: Although only in his third two-year term, Ortiz is among the more “senior” half of Alaska’s 40 House members.

Rep. Sara Hannan has been in the legislature for 9 months. She said that the administration and legislature had cut the budget beyond “what is acceptable for a healthy economy of Alaska.” That remark generated a round of applause from the Southeast Conference. So did this one, from a legislator whose district includes much of Juneau.

“We’ve got a diversified economy, but when you take 817 state jobs out of our region — jobs that had mortgages, jobs that supported families — that’s really crippling to a region,” Hannan said. “And it may not have shown up as significantly in Anchorage — and there’s that idea that if you concentrate the entire economy in one place, you have some efficiency — but for state, that’s not good. The goal of government isn’t to be efficient — we want it to be efficient — our goal of governing should be to serve the needs of our state.”

Hannan got another ovation for alluding to a person “who is no longer director of OMB,” a reference to Donna Arduin, whom Gov. Dunleavy brought in from out of state to oversee the drafting of this year’s budget. Dunleavy has since moved her into a consulting role. Sen. Jesse Kiehl — also a first-term legislator from Juneau — said this was an opportunity to push for a return to budgeting from the bottom-up.

“The governor hasn’t changed his philosophy,” said Kiehl. “We’re still going to have differences of opinion. But there was a good conversation about moving more of the work of developing the governor’s budget proposal into the departments where they do the actual work.”

The districts encompassing Juneau saw a complete turnover in their legislative delegation last fall. Another newcomer, Rep. Andi Story was scheduled to appear at the forum, but was not present. Sitka Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins and Sen. Bert Stedman both appeared before the conference on the previous day.