Governor eliminates $444 million from operating budget
On Friday, June 28, Governor Mike Dunleavy announced $444 million of line item vetoes from Alaska’s Fiscal Year 2020 operating budget.
The most substantial reduction was $130 million from the University of Alaska’s budget. This comes in addition to a $5 million cut already approved by lawmakers; the result is a 41 percent cut from UA funding. In a letter, University President Jim Johnsen called for the Legislature to override the “devastating” veto. Without an override, he said, the cuts will “strike an institutional and reputational blow from which we may likely never recover.”
Furlough notices have been sent out to roughly 2,500 University employees across the state and Johnsen wrote that he was directed to form a plan for financial exigency by July 15. This will result in the rapid cessation of programs and academic units as well as the “unprecedented process of removing tenured faculty.” Despite the drastic vetoes, however, all community campuses, including Nome’s Northwest Campus, currently remain funded.
Dunleavy’s cuts to education range from the university system down to prekindergarten. The governor reduced the Head Start program funding by $8.6 million, which is roughly 25 percent of their budget. “Head Start is such an important thing in rural Alaska,” said Senator Donny Olson.
Without the Head Start program, it will be more difficult for youth to keep up with their peers academically, Olson stated. Another veto lowered the school bond debt reimbursement by 50 percent. The program was created to reimburse school districts for infrastructure, maintenance and repairs. Without the state support, cities and boroughs are responsible for covering these costs. Cities with a tax base may have to raise property taxes in order to make up for the loss of state funds to maintain schools.
In terms of other local impacts, Dunleavy’s vetoes will close the Nome Emergency Shelter Team shelter, or NEST. Nome community members created NEST to reduce winter fatalities on the street. There have been no fatalities as a result of exposure during the winter months in the years NEST has been in operation. There are no alternatives to state funding for NEST, the only cold weather emergency shelter in the region, said Brian Wilson, executive director for the Alaska Coalition on Housing and Homelessness. “These cuts are targeting domestic violence victims, homeless children, low-income seniors, and other marginalized populations,” Wilson wrote in an email to The Nome Nugget. “This action decimates an already greatly underfunded homeless service delivery system.”
The Nome Youth Facility will also be forced to close. “That is a travesty,” Olson said, because youth will be sent out of the region and separated from their families and support systems. Nome Public Schools Superintendent Jamie Burgess said the closure of the Nome Youth Facility means a roughly $200,000 loss of income to the school district. Burgess was disappointed with the governor’s decision, but said the district planned for the facility’s closure in their final budget.
Olson is upset by Dunleavy’s budget, which he said for sure disproportionately impacts rural Alaskans. Though he said he was expecting these cuts, “I continue to be amazed by this Governor’s lack of compassion, vision, and ability to work with others to build a better Alaska,” Olson stated.
In addition to concerns over the reduction to the VPSO program, Olson is particularly discouraged by the cuts to Alaska Legal Services and the Senior Benefits Program and Medicare, which he said show a lack of attention to the needs of the state’s most vulnerable residents.
Representative Neal Foster also expressed his concerns about the closures of NEST and Nome Youth Facility as well as a $3 million cut to the Village Public Safety Officer, or VPSO, program. “It’s disappointing that the Governor, who put so much emphasis on public safety, made vetoes that will make the crime problem worse,” he wrote in an email to The Nome Nugget.
Additionally, Dunleavy eliminated all funding for the Alaska State Council on the Arts. Unless anything changes, the Council will be forced to shut down entirely within two weeks. Among other things, this means that recently-approved pending grants to organizations, school districts and artists will not be funded. Nome’s Alice Bioff, who was appointed to the ASCA board in 2016, said the impacts of eliminating ASCA will be “catastrophic” for the Bering Strait region. In past years, schools in the region have benefitted from the Council on the Arts through its Artists in Schools Program. In Nome, grants from ASCA have provided funding for artists to work with students at Anvil City Science Academy for two weeks each year.
ASCA has also been vital for local artists. Silver Hand stickers and tags provide a way for Alaska Native artists to prove that their work is authentic. Part of the purpose of the stickers is to minimize competition from individuals attempting to sell fake Alaska Native art. “This is not just about support for the arts as a concept, it is about community, economic opportunities, and cultural identity” said Bioff.
Among a list of 182 vetoes, other significant cuts include $50 million from Medicaid and the complete defunding of the Senior Benefit Program. Additionally, $2.7 million was eliminated from Public Broadcasting and the state will no longer fund the Alaska Department of Fish and Game subsistence director position.
Dunleavy explains his cuts are an effort to balance the State’s budget without reducing the size of the Permanent Fund Dividend or raising taxes. “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 as he announced the cuts in a news conference.
Though the new budget took effect on July 1, Alaska lawmakers still have an opportunity override Dunleavy’s vetoes. This requires that three-quarters, or 45 of Legislature’s 60 members, vote to do so.