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That was what young Alaskans had to say when asked about their outlook on the state for an excellent piece by Alaska Beacon reporter Yereth Rosen, which paints one of the best pictures about the political forces shaping the state’s future and what it all means for the next generation. It examines the rhetoric that Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s challengers—independent Bill Walker and Democrat Les Gara—have sought to define the race by in its closing days: That under his four years in office, Alaska has backslid to a place where young Alaskans are looking south to their future.
“We’re building prisons and we’re closing schools. Something’s really wrong with our economy when that’s what we’re doing,” Walker said at the Oct. 17 Anchorage Chamber of Commerce debate (which Dunleavy, of course, did not attend), later adding, “We are circling the drain on education in Alaska right now. When you shortchange a system for so long, when you kick the can down there for so long, eventually the can kicks back. We’re seeing it.”
“One-third of our young people are leaving. You have to ask yourselves why,” Gara said at the forum. “We’re losing students, we’re losing young people for the exact policies that this governor has tried to push. They don’t see a future in this state.”
While the trend of outmigration is admittedly more complicated than solely Dunleavy’s occupation of the governor’s mansion, it’s nonetheless an undeniable trend. Per the Alaska Beacon story’s opening line: “For nine straight years, more people have left Alaska than moved to the state, and for eight of those years, Alaska’s total population declined. It is the longest stretch of net outmigration recorded in Alaska since World War II.”
And whoever wins on Tuesday (when the RCV votes are tabulated three weeks from then) will face the tall task of making Alaska into more than just “America’s natural resources warehouse.”
‘Why do you want this job?’
That timeline of outmigration above, of course, puts as many years of outmigration on former Gov. Walker’s tenure as it does Dunleavy’s (and Gara’s time in the Legislature, if we’re keeping track). It’s a point that seemed to be the Dunleavy camp’s lone defense against the criticism, but it’s far from the exoneration they think it is.
We could dissect Walker and Gara’s time in office at length, but they’re not the incumbent who has to answer for the most recent four years.
Dunleavy came into office swinging against a whole lot of what Alaskans would think is precious, letting Outside budget hawk Donna Arduin loose onto the state’s budget with little more guidance than paying out a big PFD. Whenever horrified legislators would attempt to drill down into Dunleavy’s year-one budget—the one that proposed a roughly 25% cut to K-12 funding, sky-high rates on Pioneer Homes, a gutting of the University of Alaska system and an ax for the Alaska Marine Highway System—Arduin would placidly remind them that the entire goal was to pay out the big, full statutory PFD that Dunleavy promised without any new revenues. That was it.
While the governor was cowed by a rightfully enraged public that drove bipartisan energy into the unsuccessful recall effort, that initial budget exercise told us a lot about how the governor would be running for the next four years. We focused on the cruel cynicism of the cuts that heaped the hurt of his budgetary goals on poor Alaskans, elder Alaskans, young Alaskans and Alaska Native communities, but what should have been even more alarming is that it was all a product of a governor seemingly disinterested in the cost of turning his campaign promise into a reality.
As the old Joe Biden line goes: “Show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you value.”
For Dunleavy, we can find his values in headline after headline about cuts to the University of Alaska, school closures, endless questions about the fate of the Alaska Marine Highway, his dogged boosting of Pebble Mine, the sole-source contracts, the efforts to shield his attorneys general from sexual harassment allegations, his pledge to attack Alaskans’ constitutional right to an abortion if elected and the lawsuits attacking everything from unions to university scholarships.
The only revenue provision that the governor ever seemed particularly interested in was legalized gambling and gaming, but even that petered out with little effort.
At one of the few times that Dunleavy could be bothered to share a debate stage with his opponents, Dunleavy met concerns about school closures by attacking school administrators and suggesting that he could help them balance their budget. On the radio, his surrogates suggested that the Anchorage School District had dug itself into a hole through fraud.
In a time where Alaska needs some serious solutions for the path ahead or at least a modicum of hope, the words of those young Alaskans are understandable.
As Walker, who in his time as governor tried to bring closure to the state’s financial uncertainty with a fiscal plan, revisions to the dividend and some new revenue, put it during the Debate for the State: “Why do you want this job?”
Somewhere in the late stages of the 2018 race, Walker told me one of his greatest regrets of his time in office was seeing the state’s considerable savings vanish as everyone battled over a long-term fix for Alaska’s state budget. Alaska spent more than $13 billion from the Alaska Constitutional Budget Reserve, whose repayment provision still haunts Alaska today through the dreaded sweep.
It’s money that could have gone to a myriad of other uses that may have been able to turn the corner on outmigration: Projects that lowered energy costs, increased the availability of accessible housing or expanded educational opportunities.
As I look now at what Dunleavy’s term has meant for Alaska, it feels mostly like we’ve been spinning our wheels. The Alaska Legislature’s main goal over the last four years has been to stop the very worst impulses of a governor who would sell out the state’s future to fulfill today’s campaign promise. For the most part, the Legislature has succeeded in that mission, but in doing so, has also saved the governor from himself. He never came close to instituting his scorched-earth budget and has yet to get the opportunity to radically rewrite the state’s constitution.
But it has been far from easy. The Legislature’s far-right forces, empowered by the governor, have found new levers to snarl the public process and push us closer to the brink of a shutdown. They’ll be looking to seize complete control after this election but even if things go well for Republicans on Tuesday (and three weeks from Tuesday when the votes are finally tabulated), it still looks like there’s a good shot that the moderate Republicans in the Alaska Senate may go bipartisan.
That’ll be needed because it’s not likely that this year’s “balanced” budget—a product of sky-high investment returns and Putin’s invasion of Ukraine—will stay balanced well into the future.
Read also: Looming school closures expose the reality of a ‘balanced budget’
The whims of the world’s economy
One of the biggest lessons in my decade-plus covering Alaska politics is just how beholden Alaska is to the whims of the global economy. Our budget flourishes when oil prices rise and wilts when they fall. As our budget goes, so does the state’s investment in local communities, schools, parks and all the sorts of things that attract and keep people here for the long haul. Alaska’s continued outmigration has been an issue that has come up throughout the race as economists have continued to raise the alarm that we’re in for a dismal future if things don’t turn around.
It’s easy to get caught up in the trends and the numbers, losing sight on the kinds of messages and impact it has on everyday Alaskans that aren’t reflected in budget reports. That’s why the Rosen’s reporting and the words of young Alaskans—the kind of people whose love and passion for this state will greatly determine its quality in the coming decades—are so critical to consider as we move forward.
Early in the days of the state’s oil collapse, I heard questions about what kind of Alaska we want at the end of the day. How many services do we want and how much are we willing to pay? We are still far from consensus—so often finding ourselves distracted by the fires stoked by Dunleavy and company—but I’d hope that with whatever Alaska we all decide upon, there’s a place and an opportunity for young people looking to make a career, a home and a family in Alaska.
Because, after all, that’s what it has been for me.
Well said! It is unfortunate that information like this doesn’t get more eyeballs in the mainstream media; particularly in the weeks before a critical governor’s election. I saw it on election day.