By Leigh Armstrong

With Gov. Mike Dunleavy deciding not to veto restoration of state funds for early childhood education programs, Sen. Jesse Kiehl and Rep. Sara Hannan said they believe that Alaskans speaking out against the governor’s original budget cuts had a positive impact. 

On Aug. 13, Dunleavy announced he would accept legislative funding of $6.8 million to Head Start, $1.2 million to early childhood grants, $474,000 to the Parents as Teachers grants and $320,000 to the Best Beginnings grants.

He also announced last week he would accept the Legislature’s restoration of funding for monthly cash benefits to low-income seniors, state money to help Alaska Legal Services Corp. provide assistance to victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, and about $800,000 for public library and school homework programs.

In addition, Dunleavy last week struck a deal with the University of Alaska to cut its funding by $25 million this year and an additional $45 million over the next two years rather than the $130 million reduction he had proposed all in this year, which would have been a 41 percent slash in state funding for the university.

After the governor in late June vetoed more than $400 million in state funding for the university, seniors, the arts and more, the Legislature, meeting in special session in July, restored most of the money in a second budget bill. Dunleavy signed that bill Monday, accepting most of the Legislature’s restored money.

“Any money that is not vetoed is a good thing,” Kiehl said. Kiehl and Hannan, both Juneau-based but whose districts include Skagway, visited here on Aug. 12-13, sharing news about their legislative efforts. Kiehl and Hannan said Alaskans are making a difference with a unified voice against Dunleavy’s budget cuts.

Hannan said she’s received thousands of emails over the past weeks pledging support in fighting Dunleavy’s budget, and only about 150 in favor of the governor’s cuts.

Even with the governor backing down on some of his earlier vetoes, the lawmakers said there are still multiple services, such as public broadcasting, suffering sharp reductions in state money. Some of the budget cuts will eliminate entire programs, including the Ocean Rangers program that puts environmental observers aboard cruise ships. 

In visiting their constituents across Southeast, Kiehl and Hannan , said the prevailing worries among the communities are reduced state ferry service and education cuts.

“I’m not sure if the governor has gotten the message that the coastal communities rely on the ferry service,” Hannan said. 

In hopes of creating a more stable ferry system, Hannan said she and Kiehl are working with the Southeast Conference to promote a ferry management board where members could only be removed for cause, so there could be consistent decision making for the ferry system no matter who was governor. 

K-12 education funding looks to be next year’s battleground for the budget, Hannan said. “Next year, the governor would like to cut $600 million from the budget and the only funding pot left is education,” she said. 

The budget bill signed by Dunleavy on Monday set this fall’s Permanent Fund dividend at $1,600 per person. Kiehl said Aug. 13 he had expected the governor would accept the number, even though Dunleavy wanted a $3,000 dividend.

While in Skagway, Kiehl and Hannan spoke to residents about their outlook for the future and the need for more power and communications infrastructure to help create jobs in Alaska. A lot of the talk was about jobs.

State budget cuts over the years are hurting recruitment and retention for public service jobs, adding to high turnover, Kiehl said. For example, he said Alaska will pay to train law enforcement officers who stay in Alaska and then get offered higher wages elsewhere plus a pension, which was dropped for new hires in Alaska 13 years ago. The lack of a guaranteed pension plan in particular is one of the points that Kiehl said keeps public employees from treating Alaska as a permanent home, rather than a stopover to get training and experience. 

“The edge of adventure wears off for many people,” Kiehl said. “We created a vortex where we shouldn’t be surprised that we have public turnover.” 

The governor’s push to continue cutting the state budget makes Alaska a less desirable place to live and settle down, Hannan said. “I don’t think we can continue to cut.”