Alaska has two weeks before the Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy’s devastating vetoes—vetoes to everything from the University of Alaska to the Senior Benefits Program and the Village Public Safety Officer Program—become irreversible.
The Alaska Legislature is set to meet in special session on July 8 and legislators will have five days from then to see if they can muster the 45 total votes for an override. With one of the highest bars for a hurdle in the country, Alaskans have their work cut out for them.
Not only is there the tricky political work to petition legislators to override the vetoes, but simply understanding the impacts of the cuts on this fast of a turnaround is a challenge. It’s like drinking from a fire hose of bad news.
We’ll continue to break down issues throughout this week. Thanks to reporting and advocacy over the weekend, here’s some of the things that we do know:
Dunleavy’s veto of school bond debt reimbursement will mean higher local property taxes: The governor stopped short of delivering a full veto of $100 million school bond debt reimbursement program, instead cutting it in half. The money goes to pay for the portion of school bond debt payments that the state promised to cover, and the cut means nearly every government with a school district will be in a pinch starting today.
The Anchorage Daily News reports that the impact will mean Anchorage will see a $20.5 million hole in its budget followed by the Mat-Su Borough, which will see a $9.2 million hole. The Fairbanks North Star Borough will lose out on $5 million and the Juneau will lose out on about $4.25 million.
“It’s like going out to dinner with a friend of yours and having them pull a dine-and-dash,” Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz told the ADN. “That’s what the state is doing. And I think that sends a terrible message to business because if the state is unwilling to keep its word to its municipalities, to its local jurisdictions, to its own taxpayers, how can business have any confidence that the state’s going to honor its obligations in other arenas as well?”
With local budgets already passed, some municipalities will be dipping into savings like Juneau plans to while others built the assumption that the funds would get cut into their tax rates like Mat-Su did, where $12 million was cut from its budget while also passing a slight increase in property taxes. The Fairbanks North Star Borough passed a variable tax rate with its budget and the veto means the borough will be coming in on the higher side of its property taxes.
“The time for politics is over. Now is the time for statesmanship,” said Borough Mayor Bryce Ward in a prepared statement. “In these times of uncertainty, the borough’s budget included contingencies. As a result, our taxpayers are seeing a mill rate increase in direct response to the State failing to fully fund school bond debt reimbursement. We did our job. It’s time for state leaders to do theirs.”
Dunleavy’s veto of $6 million in VPSO funding came on the same day AG Barr announced a law enforcement emergency in rural Alaska: Only a few hours before the governor rolled out his vetoes, U.S. Attorney General William Barr announced a promising effort to bolster public safety in rural Alaska after his eye-opening trip to the state in late May. The announcement came along with $10.5 million in funding directly to rural public safety programs like the Village Public Safety Officers as well as rural and tribal police. There’s also pledges for continued work and more than an additional $10 million that would be available for child advocacy centers.
Much of that news, then, came in direct contrast to Dunleavy’s decision to veto $6 million out of the Village Public Safety Officer Program. The administration argues that the money wasn’t being used and could be better used for things like the Alaska State Troopers, but many legislators and Alaska Native groups have been critical of the administration’s attitude toward the VPSO program, arguing that the administration doesn’t appear to be interested in making the program work.
The cuts to parts of the legal system don’t end there. Dunleavy also aimed his veto pen at the Alaska Supreme Court as punishment for its ruling on abortion earlier this year. He also vetoed funding for additional staff that would have helped prosecutors’ offices handle an already too-high caseload, which was an issue before the tough-on-crime House Bill 49 was passed.
Dunleavy also vetoed funding for the Alaska Civil Legal Services Corporation, which provides free legal services for low-income Alaskans. On Twitter, the organization explained that its services include things like “escaping an abusive partner, stopping a wrongful foreclosure and defending against a fraudulent debt collector.”
“Without access to these services, many will be left without a voice in the civil justice system. ALSC anticipates that we will be forced to turn away over 1,360 Alaskans including families, veterans, seniors, ill or disabled people and domestic violence victims,” the group added.
Dunleavy’s vetoes of Senior Benefits, homeless services, drug treatment and Medicaid will hit the poor particularly hard: There’s a common thread in many of the cuts handed down by Governor Dunleavy: They’ll hit low-income Alaskans particularly hard. There’s the cut to the Alaska Civil Legal Services Corporation explained above, but there’s also a $50 million cut to Medicaid (which goes beyond what legislators and the administration agree is actually achievable in one year), the complete elimination of Senior Benefits Program, adult dental services, behavioral health grants for drug addiction treatment and a slew of others.
The Anchorage Daily News reports that funding for homelessness services will be reduced from $13.7 million to $2.6 million thanks to the veto. Anchorage, which has a particularly large homeless population, will be hit the hardest.
“These cuts are targeting domestic violence victims, homeless children, low-income seniors, and other marginalized populations,” Brian Wilson, executive director of the Alaska Coalition on Housing and Homelessness, told the paper. “This action decimates an already greatly underfunded homeless service delivery system.”
When asked about the outsized impacts his vetoes would have on the low-income Alaskans, Dunleavy shrugged it off.
“We do believe that in some of these cases, a full statutory PFD could mitigate some of these some of the issues,” he said.
Dunleavy’s veto of public broadcasting and Alaska State Council on the Arts will have major impacts, particularly for rural Alaska: The governor practically zeroed more than $2 million for public broadcasting in a move that will leave many radio stations throughout the state in a lurch. Stations in rural Alaska will lose out on about $80,000 in funding each, according to a report by the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.
“It’s devastating,” Fairbanks’ KUAC General Manager Keith Martin told the paper. “A lot of stations are going to have a difficult time meeting the matching requirement for federal grants. In general, it’s hurt us and it’s disappointing.”
The impacts for the elimination of the Alaska State Council for the Arts will also be disastrous as it turns out that the group does a whole lot of things with its funding.
Chairman of the Board of Trustees Ben Brown released a statement outlining the impacts for the office, which will cease functioning after 54 years of serving Alaska thanks to Dunleavy’s veto.
Some of the eliminated things include the end of Creative Forces, a program that provides art therapy to servicemen and service women suffering from PTSD and traumatic brain injuries. Brown notes “the federal funds for work being done at JBER may be re-allocated to other states when the Alaska Program terminates.”
Poetry Out Loud, a program that gives students an opportunity to participate in the national poetry competition will also come to an end, making Alaska the only state not to participate in the program. The Governor’s Arts and Humanities Awards will also come to an end. The council also faces the logistically tricky task of recalling all art from the Alaska Contemporary Art Bank and figuring out what to do with it.
In another punch down on Alaska Natives, the end of the Alaska State Council on the Arts will also mean the end of a program that is intended to prove the authenticity of Alaska Native arts. The end of the Silver Hand Seal “may bring more fake artwork into the market, increasing the sale of fake Alaska Native arts.”