Gov. Mike Dunleavy went to Washington, D.C. on Thursday to, as Alaska Public Media explains, “play a supporting role at a White House Event that celebrated President Donald Trump’s deregulation initiatives, including a new overhaul of a bedrock environmental law.”
Dunleavy, who’s long suggested the best fix to what ails Alaskans is a job in the resource extraction industry, suggested the rollbacks of long-standing environmental protections will restore “the hope that they can realize the American dream.”
Let’s set aside the debate over the regulations themselves for a minute because while Dunleavy was busy praising the president’s pro-business acumen, the Dunleavy administration’s own actions when it comes to helping Alaska businesses cope with the economic devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic have painted a very, very different picture.
Yes, we’re once again talking about the badly underperforming Alaska CARES Act program, which has only managed to distribute $12.1 million of the $290 million in federal money more than a month-and-a-half after launching. As of Tuesday, the program had approved just 273 applications—a rate of 45 a week—leaving the nearly 2,000 businesses that have applied in limbo.
The program has been besieged by a lawsuit (which seems to no longer be a pressing issue thanks to the state’s victory last week), snarled by the administration’s framework, and slowed by a review process primarily focused on preventing fraud.
Since the program’s launch, businesses and legislators have pleaded with the administration to make much-needed changes, warning that the glacial pace of the program will leave as much as $200 million inches away from those who desperately need it to survive the pandemic.
Two weeks after business leaders outlined a slate of changes, the administration just this week said they’d be making them… eventually.
The revised application that’s now possible thanks to that court victory? Still working on it. How about that all-in-one portal that’ll make it easier to apply? They’ll need to go out to bid, but they’ve yet to issue that request. Do they need the Legislature to lend a hand with a new law? No, they do not. What about bigger fixes to ensure all the money gets out to those in need? Maybe later.
But, hey, they have started looking at best practices for administering such a program.
It’s this lack of urgency in fixing the program—encapsulated by an administration seemingly caught flat-footed, unable to seize upon its victory in court—that makes the governor’s words so “tone deaf,” as Andrew Halcro wrote on Twitter today.
“Tone deaf. What is actually strangling the American dream for so many Alaskans? 1 in 3 business in Alaska remains closed. After almost two months less than 15% of the applications for federal relief money to small business have been processed by (the Dunleavy) administration,” he wrote. “The unemployment rate remains high. Business confidence is shaken and (Dunleavy) hasn’t said one word about Alaska’s economy after UI benefits and federal relief is exhausted. And by the way…where the hell is the governor’s Alaska Business Development Team? I mean dear God regulations are not the problem. The problem is the governor knows nothing about how to move Alaska’s economy forward other than forty-year-old political soundbites and he’s surrounded himself with people who know even less.”
After lambasting legislators for daring to raise questions about the rushed creation of the program, it’s those legislators like House Labor and Commerce Committee Chair Rep. Ivy Spohnholz and House Speaker Bryce Edgmon who’ve boosted boots-on-the-ground business leaders and kept the administration’s feet to the fire.
And judging by Tuesday’s Labor and Commerce hearing where officials pledged fixes but could offer no concrete timeline, that pressure needs to continue. To Edgmon, it was the same empty pledges he’s heard since the launch of the program.
“What continues to escape me is clarity in all of this. I feel like I’m hearing two versions, one today, as I’ve heard in previous committees, about optimism that this money is going to get out the door and then when I talk to people, particularly in (economic development) rings, I hear a completely different story,” he said. “I just have to sit here today wondering if we will be back in a week or two or perhaps even later, grappling with these same issues and hearing the same promise that you’re working on it and making progress.”
Why it matters
The small business relief program is just one facet of the state and federal government’s failure to take necessary steps to defend against the worst of the economic pain of the pandemic. The recovery from the pandemic will require employers—and not just remote mines and oilfields—to survive a summer without the influx of tourism dollars and the pending collapse of household spending when the federal unemployment insurance expires.
What has always looked like it would be many months if not years of economic pain was met with the short-term solution of pushing for a hasty reopening of businesses. Now, the safe reopening of schools a month from now—a key element of the economic recovery—is thrown into question as cases surge and the state continues to hold out on further public health orders.
The country and Alaska are in desperate need of leadership that has the long-term health of individuals and the economy in mind, not someone looking to score cheap, short-term political points with White House stunts.