Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy finally did a round of interviews with Alaska-based media to mark his first year in office, pledging a more robust communication effort with Alaskans.
“I could’ve done a much better job at communicating,” he told the Alaska Journal of Commerce in a Dec. 2 interview. “I’ll be the first to admit that.”
To that front, Dunleavy promised—but has yet to publicly announce a schedule for—a new round of roadshow meetings with “all the communities, communities that have been effected and meeting with any and every group there is.”
But don’t take that as a complete 180, a return to the kind of community we saw a year ago on his inauguration day.
“What I want to hear from these folks once they get done venting is what they want Alaska to look like,” he said. “What are we willing to do to get to that point for Alaska to look like that?”
He doesn’t talk about what he means by “venting,” but if you’ve had the stomach to wade through the governor’s many recent appearances on right-wing national media, then it’s probably a safe assumption that he’s talking about the recall.
The recall effort, the thousands of protestors and the hundreds and hundreds of hours of public testimony and input is an attempt by Alaskans to spell out what they would like Alaska to look like.
Does that mean nearly 50,000 Alaskans need give up on the recall campaign before he’ll talk with them?
The dismissive language is the precisely the problem many Alaskans—and not just the Democrats he’s claimed to the national audience—have had with Dunleavy and is what has fueled the remarkable energy behind the recall campaign.
Dunleavy spent his first year in office dismissing the public testimony, demonstrations and protests of thousands as some kind of “special interest” that was unrepresentative of Real Alaskans. Even in the committee rooms of the Alaska Legislature, Dunleavy’s administration stonewalled and scoffed at the notion that the administration should be concerned with impact his policies would have on local communities.
With the budget due out in 10 days and the legislative session set to begin late next month, there’s not a whole lot of time left for the kind of robust conversation. And that’s not to mention that many of the key positions of the administration—budget director, revenue commissioner and press secretary—are either empty or are filled with temporary hires.
In the interim of former Gov. Bill Walker’s first year in office, the administration convened a budget summit on the campus of the University of Alaska Fairbanks that brought together more than a hundred people from all sectors of Alaska to discuss what Alaska should look like after the floor fell out of oil prices.
The event wasn’t an opportunity for Walker or his political allies to lecture the audiences about the budget and constitutional amendments, but a place for Alaskans who didn’t see eye-to-eye to meet, talk and work together. Did it solve everything and was everyone happy? Of course not, but it was a sincere attempt at consensus building as Alaska faced a dire financial outlook.
Dunleavy’s approach, meanwhile, has been a top-down approach concocted with a budget director with no ties to the 49th state. By most accounts, the vetoes delivered at the 11th hour came as a surprise to many even within state government let alone the people affected by the cuts. It certainly caught Alaskans by surprise.
After the start of the fiscal year on July 1, we heard stories about seniors going hungry with the abrupt termination of the senior benefits program and others reliant on the state’s social safety nets saw their benefits erased overnight, leaving at least one man without teeth.
It was shockingly short-sighted, callous and un-Alaskan.
Dunleavy later claimed he was just starting a conversation with the very real cuts.
Still, the governor’s right that the impact of his cuts—softened with restorations made possible by pushback from legislators and the recall—haven’t wrought the kind of economic damage that was predicted if his original budget proposal had been implemented exactly as he wanted.
But it’s not just the size and scope of the cuts that were problems. It’s the uncertainty and instability that the governor injected into Alaska that still hurts and is still a chilling effect on many. One would have to wonder what the economy would be doing if not grappling with the uncertainty created by Dunleavy.
Coastal communities are still grappling with the elimination of ferry service. Students are still debating whether they really want to invest their time in a University of Alaska education. Teachers and state employees are still wondering if they should get out before a new round of budget cuts.
Do we have any real idea of what Dunleavy plans to do? No.
His interim has been spent confoundingly ping-ponging between acting as if the recall effort is no big deal while turning to a national audience to drum up big-buck support against it. When the governor prioritizes talking with national outlets and taking softball questions from people on his payroll, it’s not listening.
Instead of dismissing people’s concerns as “venting,” perhaps the governor should consider why people are so upset because without answering those questions, they’re not going to stop.
This year could have been a chance to have real, honest and substantive conversations with Alaskans about the future of the state.
Would they have been marked with protests? Yes, but that’s how Alaskans have learned to communicate when they’re not being heard.