Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy speaks at a news conference at the Capitol. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)
Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s agenda for his first year in office was ambitious: pay a $3,000 Permanent Fund dividend and balance the state budget through massive spending cuts.
With the legislative session winding down, Dunleavy has gotten traction with some of his ideas, but many others have stalled. Several big pieces of Dunleavy’s budget proposal have been discarded — not just by the mostly-Democratic House majority, but also by the mostly-Republican Senate majority.
Dunleavy’s goal of a $3,000 PFD is still up in the air. But lawmakers have rejected his plans to slash state spending on health care, schools and the state university system. They haven’t approved his proposed constitutional amendments on budget matters. And they haven’t held a single hearing on his bill to divert nearly half a billion dollars in oil-tax revenue to the state, away from cities and boroughs.
Outside of budget legislation and an earthquake spending package, Dunleavy has introduced 25 bills this year, and none of those has passed the House or Senate.
“Clearly, his budget proposal effectively didn’t garner any support, and I think you’ve seen a lot of skepticism about his amendments to pretty radically change the Constitution,” said Anchorage Democratic Rep. Zack Fields.
Lawmakers have also been slow to advance a package of Dunleavy’s tough-on-crime bills. But those ideas have shown signs of life in the past couple of weeks, and Fields said he and other lawmakers want to get some of them done before the legislative session wraps up.
“They’re running close to the end. But there’s still time to address some of these concerns that the governor has,” Shuckerow said. “And that’s why he’s meeting with lawmakers and leadership on a regular basis, sometimes daily.”
The governor’s office is still holding out for more of his bills and initiatives to get across the finish line this year. But Cathy Giessel, the Anchorage Republican who’s president of the Senate, said Dunleavy can still declare victory even if that doesn’t happen.
Sen. Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)
The governor’s proposals may have drawn backlash from Alaskans who oppose sharp spending reductions. But Giessel said they’ve sparked new public awareness and debate about how the state is spending its money.
“It’s at the kitchen tables of families, and that’s never been achieved before,” she said. “If you look at items, bulleted lists of the things he’s asked for, yeah, they haven’t been checked off yet. But they are still under discussion, and that’s a huge accomplishment.”
And even if Dunleavy doesn’t get everything he wants from the Legislature — like a much smaller budget and much larger PFD — that doesn’t have to amount to a big political loss. Instead, he can try to blame lawmakers for failing to get the job done, according to Pat Pourchot, who once worked as a top deputy to former Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles.
“That’s exactly what happens oftentimes in the world of politics, is: ‘I tried to get you a $3,000 dividend, but the Legislature balked and you need to hold your legislators accountable,’” Pourchot said. “Sometimes that goes a ways in explaining why you didn’t deliver on your promise.”
Dunleavy can always return to his agenda next year; he’s in the first year of a four-year term. And those who opposed some of his ideas in this legislative session said they expect they’ll have to keep up that effort in the next one.
“The questions in front of the Legislature this year won’t go away just because they didn’t advance,” said Nils Andreassen, the director of the Alaska Municipal League — a coalition of cities and boroughs that was a strident critic of Dunleavy’s proposals to divert municipal revenue to the state. He added: “AML can’t back down from a conversation about the the important partnership between state and local government that should exist.”
But the session also hasn’t finished yet, and lawmakers can still pack a lot of work — and a lot of bills — into the Legislature’s closing days. Shuckerow, the governor’s spokesman, pointed out that Dunleavy still has some levers to use.
Dunleavy won’t hesitate to call lawmakers into special session if he feels like they haven’t made enough progress on criminal justice legislation, Shuckerow said.
“If the Legislature fails to address these critical issues, he’s not going to let them go,” he said.
Meanwhile, if lawmakers decide to pay a PFD of less than the $3,000 that Dunleavy wants, the governor doesn’t have the power to put that money back himself. But he does have authority to reduce spending on other programs through his line-item veto power. And he hasn’t ruled out that step, either.
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