In a scene reminiscent of Oregon— or Moldova— two separate sides gathered in two separate locations to convene two separate special sessions of the legislature, ostensibly to find two separate solutions to Alaska’s mounting budget crisis. With 38 senators and representatives gathered in the state capital, Juneau, and 22 in Wasilla, the hometown of Republican Governor Mike Dunleavy, an attempt to override some $440 million in spending cuts appeared to fail Wednesday. A three-fourths vote by a joint session (one would assume, held in the same place) will be needed by Friday, or Gov. Dunleavy’s line-item vetos will stand.
Once oil rich, Alaska— like many such regions around the globe— has been hit hard by the decline in both worldwide prices and domestic production. The state has been living off its savings to survive, but is now running out of money. In addition, Dunleavy won a two and-a-half way race for governor last fall by promising to increase Permanent Fund Dividend checks to $3,000 for each Alaska resident. To balance the budget, Dunleavy issued 182 separate line-item vetoes, axing $440 million in spending. Some $130 million would come from higher education, amounting to a 41% cut to the University of Alaska system.
“Everyone can clearly see that the state of Alaska can no longer afford to continue down the path of oversized spending, outsized government, and out-of-line priorities,” Dunleavy said. His supporters seem to agree, and several demonstrated along a highway in to Wasilla to uphold the vetoes. “There are some awful big beautiful buildings that cost an awful lot of money that could have been more utilitarian,” one told NPR on Tuesday. “We could have more books, more computers if we didn’t have grandioso buildings for millions of dollars.” Others are worried about cuts to their PFD checks, which the legislature has reduced in the past. “That full PFD can help the people who are actually struggling,” another told the Anchorage Daily News.
In Juneau, those opposed to the vetoes went through the show of holding a vote and made their voices heard. The final score Wednesday was 37-1, short of the 45 needed. One Republican, who initially supported the override, changed her mind, and urged her colleagues to vote on each veto individually. Still, lawmakers warned of grave consequences if action isn’t taken by Friday. “They would inflict incredible pain, suffering, and even premature death on Alaskans,” Rep. Zack Fields (D-Anchorage) argued. “Alaska is the Arctic university,” added Rep. Steve Thompson (R-Fairbanks). “The important work that they do will go away.”
Friday is coming, and it isn’t clear what would convince either side— literally 800 miles apart— to come together and settle their differences. The pro-Dunleavy faction will meet again on Thursday in Wasilla. For what purpose isn’t entirely clear. Alaska-Anchorage is predicting 700 layoffs and the loss of 40 programs if the vetoes are upheld. The state’s Medicaid program, social services, law enforcement, and services for the poor, elderly, and homeless would also be slashed. Disparate and distant legislators will have to decide, or not, between “smart politics” and “really, really bad policy” to balance the books.