The firefighter and the arsonist. Gov. Dunleavy fans the flames of a shutdown

Dunleavy peeks over the lectern at Gov. Bill Walker and Democrat Mark Begich during a debate on Oct. 18, 2018. (Photo by Matt Buxton/TMS)

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It was four years ago yesterday when the Legislature reached a last-minute deal on the budget to avert a shutdown. Today, the Legislature will be returning to session without a deal on the budget as a new shutdown looms ever nearer. There are many, many things that are different between then and now, but one of the most significant differences is who’s leading the show.

Then, legislators, state employees and everyday Alaskans had a pretty good idea of the mess that a shutdown would create thanks to then-Gov. Bill Walker’s work in preparing for the shutdown. He released a laundry list of things that would be affected—from the billion-dollar Bristol Bay fishery to park rangers, unemployment claims, summer road construction, substance abuse treatment in the prisons and even the sale of cigarettes and pull tabs—nearly a month before the shutdown. Was it a pressure tactic intended to make the impacts of the failure of the Legislature known and felt by the average Alaskan? Absolutely, but that’s what it took to force intransigent legislators to the negotiating table. 

“We’re not trying to overreact,” Walker said at the time. “But the worst thing we can do is sit back like nothing is going to happen.”

Today, we’re closer to a shutdown and farther from a solution with a governor who sees a shutdown not as a doomsday scenario but as leverage to strong arm legislators to do his bidding.

Gov. Dunleavy, who famously accomplished next to nothing during his time in the Senate (quite the feat for someone who not only was in the majority but also had a seat on the Senate Finance Committee), has done little but fan the flames of division and push the state closer and closer to a shutdown. He waited until the votes were cast and legislators had departed Juneau to debut his newfound legal theory about the effective date that bucks 40 years of precedent and conveniently plays into the hands of the Dunleavy-aligned House Republican minority. And now, after painting himself into a corner with claims that the budget is “unconstitutional,” he’s trying to sue his way out, a bizarre maneuver that will leave zero margin for error.

“So, we have to stay focused on working as legislators to get the effective date,” Juneau Democratic Sen. Jesse Kiehl told KINY Radio. “Because the governor threw this late hit after the whistle. The voting was done before he decided he needed to change how we read the law for 40 years. So at this point, he has done it. We have to get that effective date passed and that’s where the focus is now.”

Dunleavy and his allies have tried to claim that it’s everyone else’s fault but their own. Appease the House Republican minority, he says, and we won’t have to burn the state down. But as if to put a fine point on the tenuous political strategy, the House Minority’s demands have been vague nonsense about trying to seek a “long-term fiscal plan” and “starting a conversation.” At least the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner was able to get a straight answer from North Pole Republican Rep. Mike Prax, who told the outlet he won’t vote for the effective date unless the rest of the Legislature agrees to put the dividend in the Alaska Constitution… a measure that is not even on the special session call for today. 

To put it clearly: The price of a functioning government is not just the $1 billion overdraw on the Alaska Permanent Fund needed to boost the dividend to that level, but to forever lock in that spending on the dividend with no actual direction on what would come next—whether it be deep, draconian cuts to government or steep tax increases across the board.

And it should be noted that for all this talk about “having a conversation,” the Legislature has been having a conversation about this plan in earnest for the last month and there’s a reason why it hasn’t gained any traction. No one but the most deluded of legislators would buy the fiscal fantasy the governor has been selling. The cuts are too deep, the taxes too steep and the reliance on oil prices and investment income is too rosy.

As for the looming shutdown, with a week left to doomsday the state is still apparently in the process of compiling a list of affected services, according to the Anchorage Daily News. Some are acting as if a shutdown can’t happen while others, like the Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation are bracing for a costly shutdown. State employees, who just on Tuesday received broad guidance on the shutdown in the form of a lightly revised document first produced by Walker, were told that they would not be paid during the shutdown. They make up roughly 8% of the state workforce. Some small fraction of that will stay on as essential workers, but a vast majority will go without work, without a paycheck and without certainty.

Ultimately, this is a governor who is not interested in governing. This is a governor who looks for excuses when the times get hard. This is a governor who’s planning on sitting back and watching the fire he started engulf the house… or as Anchorage Republican Sen. Natasha von Imhof put it: 

“Gov. Dunleavy not doing everything in his power to keep his own government operational is like having an atheistic Pope.” 

And as for the entire PFD fight, Sen. Bill Wielechowski, the Anchorage Democrat who was so committed to the PFD that he brought a legal challenge against the initial cuts (which didn’t go so well, but at least he tried), weighed in to say that it’s not worth it. 

“I want a statutory PFD as much as anyone, but a government shutdown is not the way to get one and instead would be disastrous,” he wrote on Facebook. “The Permanent Fund has said they will be forced to stop trading – which could cost ‘many millions.’ Fisheries will be closed. State parks and cabins will be shut down. Oil, gas, mining and other business permits will stop. Under collective bargaining agreements, the State will be forced to pay out hundreds of millions of accrued leave. It’s time for the Governor to back away from the brink. The House Minority should vote today for an immediate effective date. Then let’s come back in August and work together to put the PFD in the Constitution.”

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