When Governor Walker released his budget one week ago today, he did so with a press release that began this way:
“Governor Bill Walker’s fiscal year 2018 (July 1, 2017 – June 30, 2018) budget reduces state spending while supporting vital services and protecting the permanent fund dividend. The proposed $4.2 billion unrestricted general fund (UGF) operating budget is 23 percent lower than when Governor Walker took office two years ago. To lead by example, Governor Walker will take a one-third pay cut.”
Ok, so the Governor appears to have checked all of the messaging boxes we were expecting. Cut spending, check. Protect the Permanent Fund, check. Support vital services, check. Cut the Governor’s pay, check… wait, what? Where did that last one come from?
That same press release says “Starting July 1, 2017, Governor Walker will take a one-third salary reduction—about $48,000 less than the $145,000 set in statute” and quotes the Governor as saying:
“While my pay cut will certainly not balance the state’s budget, I believe it is important to lead by example. These are tough times for many Alaskans and fixing the state’s deficit requires that we all make sacrifices and pull together.”
I have to admit I am by nature skeptical, cynical, and sarcastic (no, seriously, it’s true) so when I read that my eyes rolled and I thought “what a political gimmick.”
Is the Governor really going to announce a $4.3 Billion budget that includes something for everyone to hate (PFD cut, increases in taxes and fees, elimination of state services and projects, and still a $892 million deficit with a call for a broad-based tax on us all to eliminate it) and think he can distract us from that boatload of pain simply by pointing to a cut in his own pay? As football player Cris Carter would say “C’mon, man!”
I was totally offended the Governor would resort such a blatantly populist and fiscally irrelevant tactic in an attempt to look like the good guy forced to do the unpopular thing.
But over the next few hours the issue gnawed on my conscience. While my political instincts said this was a move done for show, something in me was happy to see it. I couldn’t quite place why.
Then the answer hit me. I’ve seen this movie before, only the ending was different and unsatisfying.
When I worked for Mayor Dan Sullivan at the beginning of his administration he was in much the same position the Governor is now.
In the wake of the Great Recession Mayor Dan came into office facing a budget depleted of savings and short on revenue.
Cuts needed to be made and Mayor Dan’s fiscally conservative nature made him the right guy to implement them.
While I agreed with the moves the Mayor made at the time, and still do, there was something that irked me.
The Mayor had a habit of preaching about how bloated the payroll was and how government employees needed to learn to be paid less. He cut the pay of his own staff against what their Begich administration predecessors had received and cast the cut as his people needing to understand that service in government should be a meaningful sacrifice. Accordingly that service should be meagerly paid and short lived. After all, his staff should have a much brighter and well paid future in private sector nirvana.
I gave two years of national service as an Americorps VISTA after college, so I was totally on board with Mayor Dan’s vision, except for one thing — the sacrifice of public service he expected from those around him never quite seemed to extend to his own pockets.
Even though Mayor Dan ratcheted down his own staff’s pay, cut municipal payroll, and later in his administration took a run at effectively ending the collective bargaining powers of city workers, he never did what Gov. Walker did last week and said “let me share the same pain I’m asking other to endure.”
Mayor Dan would no doubt point out that he didn’t control his salary, but then neither does the Governor. Mayor Dan could have loudly called for and aggressively supported a cut to his own pay just as the Governor is doing. Don’t think for a minute he didn’t know he could, but still he never did.
Actually, the Mayor went the other direction; after being elected, Muni staff informed the Mayor-elect he wouldn’t begin being paid a salary until he was sworn into office, but Mayor-elect Dan fought zealously to get paid between the election and taking office. He won the fight and got his money.
So much for sacrificing.
While I agreed and still agree with Mayor Dan’s views on the sacrifice of public service, I have to admit standing in my eighth-floor office at the time wondering why those sacrifices only sat on the shoulders of those of us who worked for him, but never on his own.
It is no wonder then that over the course of his administration almost all of Mayor Dan’s quality staffers moved on and the morale of City Hall workers plummeted.
Including the Governor’s current proposed budget, he will have cut almost 3,000 state jobs since taking office, eliminated cost-of-living pay increases in state contracts, and is asking for two more furlough days from state workers this year. That is a lot of sacrifice being laid at the feet of the people that work for the Governor. All of it is necessary given the state’s fiscal crisis, but it is still a lot to ask of those who work for you without demonstrating any give yourself.
State legislators would be well advised to take notice. Wouldn’t it be nice if Senate President Pete Kelly and new Speaker Bryce Edgmon called for the pay of themselves and their fellow legislators to be cut by 20 percent? Especially in the case of Kelly, who has almost cornered the market on statements vilifying government workers. How about you and your colleagues share the sacrifice, big guy? Are those crickets I’m hearing? How odd for Alaska in the winter.
Simply put, people notice when their leaders aren’t in it with them. Workers especially notice. I know I noticed.
The Governor seems to get what the Mayor did not. He gets that leaders don’t ask others to sacrifice while avoiding it himself. Regardless of the layers of political gamesmanship built over it, that awareness shows us the Governor’s true humility. If you think that is something that is just a given in our political leaders, I can tell you from personal experience it isn’t.