By Leigh Armstrong

Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s vetoes of more than $400 million in state spending will hit the day-to-day lives of Skagway residents, with cuts to senior citizen benefits, public radio, municipal assistance and cancellation of the Ocean Rangers program that puts environmental pollution observers aboard cruise ships. 

“The things the governor chose to cut are things that can erode a community,” Skagway Mayor Andrew Cremata said. 

The Legislature convened in special session on Monday and has five days to override Dunleavy’s vetoes. If opponents of the governor’s budget cuts cannot muster a three-quarters majority (45 of 60 legislators) to override, the budget cuts will stand.

Dunleavy on June 28 vetoed 182 items in the state operating budget for the fiscal year that started July 1, totaling more than $400 million in state general fund dollars — the money that lawmakers debate each year, as opposed to federal money that must be spent as directed. 

The governor’s vetoes are on top of $190 million in state funding that legislators cut from the budget in this year’s first special session last month.

In total, the legislative cuts and the governor’s vetoes represent an almost 15 percent reduction in state general fund spending from last year’s operating budget.

Dunleavy’s budget vetoes include a $30 million cut from the municipal assistance fund, which provides annual grants to cities and boroughs statewide for programs and projects of their choosing. Skagway received $350,000 under the program in the past fiscal year, said Borough Treasurer Heather Rodig. If the veto is not overturned, the municipality will start seeing reduced payments for 2021.

Also on the veto list is total elimination of funding for public broadcasting. The loss of $2.7 million will hit stations statewide, including a $75,000 cut to revenues at KHNS, which is based in Haines and also serves Skagway. Station management has said KHNS will have to cut contracts, jobs and programming unless the veto is reversed. 

The governor’s veto of the Ocean Rangers program would shut down the operation — but would not cut state spending. The on-board observer program is funded by cruise ship passenger taxes, fully covering the $3.4 million program. The Ocean Rangers program was adopted by a voter initiative in 2006, with Coast Guard-licensed marine engineers monitoring cruise ships for environmental compliance. The Dunleavy administration has said the program is an unnecessary regulatory burden on the industry. 

The Skagway Borough Assembly sees it differently. Assembly members voted unanimously May 2 in support of the program, stating that it helps keep Skagway’s waterways clean and can help prevent violations like the dumping of gray water in Glacier Bay.

Cremata said the program is especially important to Skagway, but every Alaskan should be concerned with the governor’s move to shut it down. 

Education was the biggest area hit by Dunleavey’s budget vetoes, with $130 million vetoed from the University of Alaska system — a 41 percent reduction in state funding for the statewide system of three main campuses and several community sites. 

The university board of regents is scheduled to meet July 15 to start planning layoffs and program cuts if the governor’s vetoes are not overridden. The university is looking at as many as 1,300 layoffs, school officials reported this week.

In other education-related vetoes, the governor cut in half the amount of money the state will reimburse local school districts for construction costs. The state for decades has reimbursed municipalities for much of the cost of school construction bonds; Dunleavy’s veto would save the state $48.9 million this fiscal year by passing half of that expense back to municipalities.

The veto will not hit Skagway as its school, built in 1985, is completely paid for but Haines will have to come up with an extra $450,000 to cover this year’s bond payment on the $17 million in bonds it issued to build a new school in 2005, as reported by KHNS. 

“Skagway is in the fortunate position of not having to absorb a cut like this, but there are communities and schools statewide that will be devastated and not be able to deliver the type of education Alaskan kids deserve,” Skagway School Superintendent Josh Coughran said. 

With the veto hitting other communities, the administration is sending a message about how it values education in Alaska, Coughran said. 

The governor eliminated all $800,000 for the Online with Libraries (OWL) and Live Homework Help programs. OWL is primarily a subsidy to help libraries get access to high-speed broadband, but Skagway doesn’t take part in the subsidy, Skagway Librarian Julene Brown said. Skagway does take advantage of the teleconferencing provided by OWL for meetings and public forums, as well as educational activities like remotely showing children the animals at the Alaska Zoo, she said.

While the teleconference equipment will remain, the support staff required to make the connections will be cut under the veto. The Live Homework Help allows students who need extra assistance in study areas to receive tutoring online. With many Skagway students on the road for extracurricular events, Live Homework Help has been used extensively, Brown said. 

Dunleavey wiped out the $20.8 million program that provided financial assistance to low-income seniors. The monthly checks of between $75 and $250 for 11,300 elderly Alaskans will end unless legislators override the veto.

“Seniors are already struggling to make it in Alaska,” Cremata said.

The governor’s vetoes also included an 80 percent cut to funding for homeless services, deleting all funding for adult dental care services under the Medicaid program, zeroing out state funding for early childhood education programs and Head Start, closure of the Alaska State Council on the Arts and all its programs, and eliminating all state funding to the Alaska Legal Service Corp. which last year provided assistance to more than 8,000 Alaskans statewide.

Even if the Legislature overrides the vetoes, Cremata is urging Skagway residents to be prepared. The governor already has said he wants to make more cuts next year.