A friend asked me if I was going to write a book about our current state government and what looks like a meat-ax approach to budgeting and meeting state obligations.
I said “No” for a couple of reasons, the first and most obvious (I think) is that I specialize in writing true crime these days. (I’ve written five books, three of them true crime.) The second and most important reason is that writing a book requires that you have perspective, and that almost always means distance from the subject — either in time or physical distance.
I’m not planning to leave Alaska or the planet anytime soon. At least there is nothing on my calendar, so the essential ingredient for writing a book about Alaska’s ongoing fiscal and political situation would be the passage of time.
Whatever will happen with our governor and the Legislature this year is very unclear at the moment, and funding for needy individuals, many agencies and the University of Alaska is still up in the air.
Wall Street is looking askance at Alaska’s situation and Moody’s Investors Service this week dropped the university’s credit rating by multiple grades for both revenue bonds and lease revenue bonds. That has sent a wake-up call that seems to have been heard in both the business and government communities.
Governor Mike Dunleavy’s call for a new special session in Juneau — and the positive response by most legislators — seem to be positive developments. And so does the University of Alaska’s Board of Regents decision to defer a vote on declaring financial exigency, which would be a public acknowledgement that the university is up that famous creek without a paddle. And by doing so the University of Alaska would be brushing off just about all of its commitments to students, faculty and the broader community that involve money.
I’m still not ready to call it “true crime,” though if it isn’t crime it sure looks like government with questionable judgement. A lot is at stake in the decisions to be made in the weeks and months ahead, and things could look much different than they do now once we have the perspective of time.
On a related note, Governor Dunleavy seems to be appealing to our lesser angels by pitting the public’s desire for a $3,000 Permanent Fund dividend check this October against the broader interests of the state and its people, especially young people who may be deciding whether to attend the University or Alaska or pursue their higher education outside Alaska.
Much of that damage may already have been done, since many of those with the resources and ability to attend universities outside Alaska are making those decisions now. And the uncertainty at UA could easily tip the scales in favor of fleeing our state.
I mentioned in a column two months ago that the PFD checks tend to bring out our better angels, even if things look grim before a final decision is made on the checks. Whether the better angels will prevail this year is still an open question.
Governor Dunleavy is strongly committed to a $3,000 dividend and failure to come through on that would turn many of his stronger supporters against him. Dunleavy’s position was a campaign promise that appealed to people still furious about the skimpy checks sent out in the last few years — $1,600 in 2018 and a measly $1,100 in 2017.
The traditional formula for calculating dividends would make this year’s checks about $3,000. But our lawmakers have ignored the formula when they thought following it would take too much money out of the treasury and leave too little to meet Alaska’s other commitments.
Dunleavy is under a lot of pressure to stick to his campaign promise on the dividend. But he is also under pressure from civic-minded people who insist our state leaders meet the state’s obligations to people who would be unfairly shorted, perhaps even lose their jobs, if an acceptable compromise isn’t agreed to.
There is one promising option on the table and under discussion by legislators looking for a solution. That would be to pay a $1,600 dividend this year and, if a public referendum supports changing the dividend formula to something less problematic, sending out checks for an additional $1,400 when the formula is changed to something more workable. Presumably that would not count against our 2020 checks.
I was not a big fan of the dividend scheme when it was first broached by Gov. Jay Hammond all those years ago. It seemed likely to create bitter clashes over how Permanent Fund earnings should be spent.
And it has done that, but in years past our better angels have generally prevailed. Keep your fingers crossed for this year.
Tom Brennan is an Anchorage columnist and author of five books. He was a reporter/columnist for The Anchorage Times and an editor and columnist at The Voice of The Times.