Protesters hold signs during the AFL-CIO rally in front of the Alaska Capitol on Sunday. Participants chanted for the Alaska Legislature to pass and fund a state budget.  James Brooks |  Juneau Empire

Protesters hold signs during the AFL-CIO rally in front of the Alaska Capitol on Sunday. Participants chanted for the Alaska Legislature to pass and fund a state budget. James Brooks | Juneau Empire

Alaskans appear apathetic as statewide shutdown approaches

The chants were audible for blocks around: “Do your jobs!/So I can do mine!”

The trouble was that there weren’t many people to hear them.

On Sunday, rallies organized by the AFL-CIO took place in Juneau, Fairbanks and Anchorage as part of an effort to encourage the Alaska Legislature to pass a budget and fund it. The rallies took place three weeks before a crucial July 1 deadline. If lawmakers don’t act by then, Alaska’s state government will all but shut down.

Despite the stakes, statewide interest seems low.

“That scares me,” said Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau and one of the speakers at Sunday’s rally. “I don’t think they’re really paying that much attention and it’s more fun to go fishing.”

In Juneau, one-sixth of the city’s year-round workers will be laid off. The Alaska Marine Highway System will shut down. Business licenses won’t be issued. Death certificates will be unavailable. Even cigarette and pull-tab sales will be affected. Every man, woman and child in Alaska will endure the consequences.

There has been ample comment on social media, but far fewer Alaskans appear willing to translate thoughts into tangible action.

On Sunday, only 136 people — including organizers and legislators — gathered to hear the speeches and join in the chants in front of the capitol. That’s the third-largest protest in front of the capitol this year, but its audience was hundreds fewer than the Women’s March and the March for Science, which each attracted almost 1,000 attendees.

Organizer Nadine LeFebvre said the goal of Sunday’s rallies “is to encourage the Senate and the Legislature to come together with a balanced budget before the end of the fiscal year and a sustainable budget. This is just not the best plan, to always go to the brink of failure and come up with a solution.”

Sen. Donny Olson, D-Nome, attended the rally and wrote on Facebook, “We are marching straight for a government shutdown that will be so devastating to thousands of families including hundreds in my district. … My district realizes how serious this is, as do I.”

It isn’t clear how many others realize that seriousness.

In 2015, state employees were warned of a possible government shutdown after the Legislature passed a partially funded budget before June 1. Lawmakers agreed upon the rest of the funding on June 11, the same date as Sunday’s rallies.

In 2016, lawmakers agreed upon a budget on the last day of May, hours before warnings were scheduled to go out to state employees.

This year is the closest the state has come to shutting down, and a new record is being set daily. Lawmakers have not even agreed to partially fund the budget, and the Legislature appears — to use a word from Gov. Bill Walker — to be in a “stalemate.”

“I think that a lot of folks are sort of discouraged with government in general and where we’re at,” said Rep. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, who attended Sunday’s rally. “I think that that’s sort of translated into a lack of enthusiasm to come out and shout at us more.”

Poor weather may have contributed to low turnout Sunday in Fairbanks and Juneau, but public apathy also appears — or rather, doesn’t — in the opinion pages of the state’s newspapers.

The Juneau Empire has seen no significant upsurge in letters to the editor about the shutdown, and Scott Bowlen of the Ketchikan Daily News said “there hasn’t been a surge in local response to the prospect (of a shutdown).”

“Outside of Juneau, it seems like it’s been oddly muted,” he added.

Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, said his office has been getting plenty of emails and notes.

“Based on correspondence, there’s some concern for sure,” he said.

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner opinion editor Tom Hewitt said his newspaper is receiving twice to three times the normal number of letters, but a proportion of that surge is due to national politics, not state interest.

“The Trump administration has been so very polarizing,” Hewitt said of his experience.

Hewitt said he thinks there will come a time when Alaskans pay attention to the shutdown.

“As with other aspects of the state’s fiscal crisis, I think it’s something people are only going to pay attention to when it happens,” he said.

 


 

Contact reporter James Brooks at james.k.brooks@juneauempire.com or call 419-7732.

 


 

A protester’s sign is visible in front of the Alaska Capitol during a rally on June 11, 2017. (James Brooks | Juneau Empire)

A protester’s sign is visible in front of the Alaska Capitol during a rally on June 11, 2017. (James Brooks | Juneau Empire)

Retired union organizer Willie Anderson holds a sign during the Sunday, June 11, 2017 rally in front of the Alaska Capitol. (James Brooks | Juneau Empire)

Retired union organizer Willie Anderson holds a sign during the Sunday, June 11, 2017 rally in front of the Alaska Capitol. (James Brooks | Juneau Empire)

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