A gubernatorial term that saw deep budget cuts, tensions with the state Legislature and a nearly unprecedented global health crisis will conclude with a first-of-its-kind statewide election.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy has served as the state’s top elected official during an especially eventful and at times fraught time in state and U.S. history, and is seeking reelection as governor.
When Dunleavy came into office in late 2018, the price of oil had dropped and the state was facing a deficit of $1.6 billion which he had pledged in his campaign to reduce. What followed were steep cuts, dueling special sessions in Juneau and Wasilla, lawsuits over firings, a recall campaign and an ongoing struggle between the administration and the Alaska State Legislation to find a long-term solution to the state’s fiscal future. Over half of that tenure — so far — has been deeply impacted by the largest public health crisis in a century.
Dunleavy is the first Alaska governor to seek reelection under the state’s new voting system, narrowly approved by voters in a 2020 ballot measure. According to the Alaska Division of Elections, there are currently five candidates who’ve filed to challenge Dunleavy for governor, including two Republicans, a Republican-turned-independent former governor, a Democrat and a Libertarian.
Dunleavy took time for a one-on-one conversation with the Empire about his time as an elected official, approaches to governance and how the state invests its money.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
If you were to find yourself back in a senator position, back in a more policy position, would your approach to government on that side be different after having been in the executive position as a governor?
It’s a good question I don’t think so because their functions are really different, their functions are really prescribed by the constitution and subsequent laws, so again the function of a Senator is to represent an area in a state and two House districts. Your job is to make sure you have your finger on the pulse of your district.
Then when you go to Juneau and you’re working with other legislators in both the Senate and the House your job is to try and get an understanding of what the pulse is across the state with regard to policy, which is law.
As governor, you’re the governor of the entire state and you’re in charge of all the functions, the different departments, the different divisions, the different programs, you have some responsibilities for some of the agencies, also are attached to the governor.
You’re the individual that relates directly to the federal government, dealing with the President, dealing with the different secretaries and their departments at the federal level so it’s a vastly different function of government and it’s different because of the way it’s designed by the constitution, so you’re in very different roles.
Having served in both those roles has that changed your idea about what government should do in the state?
Not really. Not really because I’ve been a student of history, student of political science through civics and government, so I had an understanding.
Similar to when you’re in a school district and a superintendent your job is to administer, is to run the government, that entity or the state, the other is policy-making. A senator doesn’t run the government, a senator has no administrative policy functions at all, no executive functions at all. They’re two different, it’s apples and oranges in many different respects.
Some lawmakers have noted and have been critical of you in the past for not being very present at the Capitol and have said that this year you have been more present and more collaborative, what’s changed, why has there been that shift?
I’m going to answer, probably not in the way you’d expect but I’ve probably been present at the Capitol as much this year as last year and the year before I think I was in the Capitol maybe even more. The governor’s job isn’t to sit in the capital city, Juneau, and wait for the Legislature to have conversations with them.
The governor’s job is to be the governor for the entire state so I mean I end up having to go to different parts of the state. It’s a big state, we have programs, we have functions going on in every part of the state.
My job is not to be the 61st legislator, my job is to, again, administer the state. If you’ve got legislators saying I’m present more now than in the past they probably didn’t notice me in the past but I can go back and look at my records but I can pretty much say that the time difference in the Capitol hasn’t varied much from year to year.
During the session I’m back and forth and if it looks like my presence is needed there, I rearrange my schedule I cancel things that may have been scheduled outside of Juneau and I go to Juneau and I meet with the Legislature and key legislators. We’re putting as much time in Juneau as we believe we have to to work with legislators during the session and I balance that with running a state, a large state.
When you came into office, you said that one of your goals was to scale back government, to “right-size” government was a term used, do you think that philosophy has changed as an executive trying to administer all these programs and keep things running?
My goal has always been, when I’m an executive, to make sure that the functions of government are functioning the way its constituents believe it should. That things are being carried out in a manner consistent with what the people of Alaska would want.
So right after (October 2018), the price of oil starts to drop and when I got into office the bottom fell out of it. So we were basically handed a $1.6 billion deficit. Now anyone, in any business, any entity, any university, any school, any home budget, if they were handed such a massive deficit they’d have to act because we’re compelled to have a balanced budget.
When you’re handed a massive deficit you’ve got to deal with it, and the way we dealt with it the first year was to make reductions so we could balance that budget.
Since then, we’ve had a number of different issues impacting this world and this state, especially the COVID virus and the fallout from that, so you have to reconfigure and re-emphasize because if you remember the first early predictions of this virus were devastating, it was almost, some would say an extinction event if those models, those early models proved to be accurate.
You don’t just continue to carry out government as if there’s no pandemic coming your way, sitting on top of you, just like you have to rearrange things if you’re the one who ends up being hit by an earthquake.
You work the hand your dealt with and you certainly hope that you get a good hand but life is interesting in that it’s never certain, it’s got twists and turns.
You’ve got to be able to deal with the twists and turns at the same time you’ve got to be able to deal with, carry out these daily functions of government even if there’s a pandemic on top of it, or numerous forest fires on top of it, or earthquakes on top of it, or negative oil on top of it, or war in Russia on top of it, at our doorstep, supply chain issues, you just have to add that stuff in and deal with it.
There have been some other programs that are coming out of your administration, the reading bill formerly known as the Alaska Reads Act, the People First Initiative which is not just public security it also has a component with the health department and then your goal of trying to diversify the state’s energy and increase renewables.
These are all things that are the government taking a lot of initiative and they’re going to require spending and administration by the government, do you still consider yourself a small-government conservative even when we have these sort of programs where it is the government guiding things in a certain direction?
I do, and I’ll explain why. We have vetoed where we believe that spending put in by the Legislature doesn’t benefit the people of Alaska or the state, that actually in the long run is spending too much money would hurt the state.
The People First Initiative for example are functions of government. Public safety, I’ll start with that, which should have never taken a back seat.
That’s not a big government move, public safety, that’s the primary function of any government. We made sure then and we are making sure then now that our public safety presence is pretty robust, we believe that helps contribute to not having a summer of riots and burnings like most of the country had.
But let’s go to things like renewables, that’s a very good question, and food security, don’t forget that, it’s real important.
So Alaska like the rest of the world, and you’re seeing it now, became pretty complacent and actually thought it was always going to be a constant that these supply chains would remain intact, that the integration of everyone in the world whether they used to be friends or foes, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, you name it,
That there was going to be a new world where everything was just run perfectly and what happened, and it happened in Alaska, as a result of that you’re flying in or barging in the cheapest products and foodstuffs you can get and you never really get around to addressing your in-state energy issues.
So we’re an energy giant, we’re drowning in energy, we’ve got all kinds of energy, but we have really yet to harness that for the benefit for Alaskans.
So the pandemic hit and you quickly realize that those supply chains and 40 years of stock market growth and job growth and flat inflation are out the window. You have to come to terms with the fact that you are far away, you’re at the end of the food chain, from a population perspective you’re small, 730,000 people.
It’s a wake-up call, it would have been a wake-up call for anyone I think and if there was a governor and there wasn’t a wake-up call, then I think there’d be something wrong with that person.
We have embarked on an approach that would make us more independent internally, and it makes perfect sense. I think we’re rated 13th in the nation in our renewables, especially along our coast, so that makes perfect sense to decouple Alaska internally from the price swings of oil and gas internationally, that way we get a consistent energy situation in Alaska which I think then allows people to budget their own household incomes and businesses to do better there.
With regard to food, we used to produce I think half of our food in Alaska, now we import about 90-95%, that is beyond a precarious situation that is a dangerous situation for any state, sovereign, anywhere, especially one detached.
What it means is, that God forbid and there will be, there will be supply chain breaks in the future, earthquakes, wars, you name it.
But that Alaska can produce enough energy internally, enough foodstuffs internally, enough basic amenities, products, services internally that we can better withstand those supply chain disruptions, is that a big government approach basically saying to folks we have renewable potential let’s capitalize on it, I don’t think so.
I don’t think it is, is it a big-government approach to say we should be growing our own food and producing as much of it here in state, and getting land to farmers, and getting land in the hands of private individuals so they can do something with it so they can become more independent. I don’t think so, I don’t think it’s big government, I think it’s smart, I think the more we put in the hands of people, land, (Permanent Fund dividend) their own destiny with regards to food, energy, cheap consistent energy, I actually think that’s exactly what a governor should be doing.
There’s been a lot of talk about divestment and perhaps rethinking how and where the state and others put their money. For a long time in the United States, there was a philosophy that the most responsible thing a corporation can do is generate money for its shareholders, do you think we’re seeing a change in that philosophy?
Yeah, I think, I do, meaning that was a pure view of a corporation’s role, a business corporation’s role, your job is to generate income for your shareholders and whatever the product or services that you do they were to do it the best they could to generate the highest returns.
I think what’s happening now is that there’s new types of value being interjected into the corporate discussion by shareholders and others that I think is broadening that idea that at one time was just income, revenue, but now it appears to be income or revenue-based around certain parameters.
Goldman Sachs, we just have to call it like it is, they have an approach now that means disinvestment from Alaska, the Arctic. Yet hypocritically, ironically, however you want to word it, they are in Russia, they are in China, they are capitalizing on those regimes, those governments, and they are making money off of them.
So we’re not consistent really if somebody thinks this is a moral or ethical company or corporation, by virtue of their disinvestment and by virtue of their investments, it’s obvious they’re not.
It’s obvious that they are, for reasons we’re trying to figure out, they feel that somehow disinvesting from Alaska pleases their shareholders or who knows, maybe holds off lawsuits from NGOs so they can pour their money into the Russias of the world or the Chinas of the world, places that really don’t have our environmental regulations, don’t have our human rights protections and they’re okay with it.
I think we all should be re-examining, especially given the times that we’re in, what is the goal, and what is the goal that is consistent with 245 years of our form of government and our emphasis on individual liberties and human rights, I think we should be having that conversation.
• Contact reporter Peter Segall at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.