“Part of the budget process is you have to listen to Alaskans,” Gov. Mike Dunleavy said on Monday after deciding not to issue a second line-item veto to the Alaska Senior Benefits Payment Program. Using similar language a day later, he restored funding for early education programs. Then he signed a budget agreement with University of Alaska officials.
Combined, the three actions put almost a third of the total funds he vetoed back into the state’s operating budget. It’s a sign that public reaction to the vetoes has forced him to back down on at least these programs. But if he had been listening to Alaskans since he released his budget proposal in February, he wouldn’t have vetoed them in the first place.
So, the question is, who finally got him to listen?
The Permanent Fund Defenders may have influenced Dunleavy’s change of heart. The group, led by former state senate president Clem Tillion, has steadfastly opposed using any portion of the Permanent Fund to pay for state government. They reportedly met with Dunleavy last week and are now recommending he accept the reduced PFD of $1,600 passed by the Legislature during the last special session. That would certainly help offset the restored funding for the three programs.
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, played a role by warning that the veto to the University of Alaska budget could result in a significant loss of federal research funds. Instead of cutting $130 million in a single year, the new agreement calls for budget reductions of $70 million spread out over three years.
Perhaps the “Recall Dunleavy” effort got his attention. It kicked off a few days after the Legislature passed the PFD bill and a budget restoring most of what Dunleavy had vetoed. In just a week they’d gathered more than two-thirds of the number of signatures required to submit the recall application to the Division of Elections.
The next step for the recall, the petition phase, won’t be so easy, as it requires 43,000 more signatures than needed for the application. But Dunleavy must recognize they’ve already surpassed the effort to recall Gov. Bill Walker after he reduced the PFD in 2016.
The theme of that drive was identical to one of Dunleavy’s prime campaign promises. “SavethePFD” was launched by Joe Miller, a two-time candidate for the U.S. senate and a leading voice in Alaska’s cut-government-to-the-bone echo chamber. “Mike is one of us” Miller wrote on his blog last November. “Make sure your vote counts this Tuesday.” I think it’s unlikely Miller and his followers wanted to Dunleavy to back down.
And that’s partly because Ben Stevens is a new voice standing by the governor’s side. Two weeks ago he was promoted to chief of staff. Unlike his predecessor, he’s not heavily invested in the fiscal ideology that made the vetoes the one and only solution to balancing the budget. And the son of the late Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska icon, may have a personal agenda that helped nudge Dunleavy in a different direction.
Ben Stevens was a state senator representing an Anchorage district from 2001 to 2007. In 2006, he opted not to run for re-election, quite possibly because he’d been implicated in the FBI’s corruption probe that led to an indictment of his father. Though never charged with a crime, Ben was referred to as “State Senator B” in an agreement in which two Veco Corp. executives pleaded guilty to bribery and two counts of conspiracy. And in a recorded conversation, his father expressed the concern that Ben had become “so depressed” by the investigation that it could be negatively impacting his grandchildren.
That was 13 years ago. It’s conceivable that Ben Stevens dodged the bullet which put a few of his Republican colleagues behind bars. It’s also possible he was entirely innocent.
Either way, it’s likely he was profoundly affected by being one of the main characters in a lot of ugly news stories.
To a lesser extent, and for very different reasons, that’s where Dunleavy has been for the last six months. And if Stevens feels a powerful incentive to repair his public image, it just might be rubbing off on our governor.
• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident and retired civil engineer with more than 25 years of experience working in the public sector. He contributes a weekly “My Turn” to the Juneau Empire.