By Randall Kowalke
Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman, July 6, 2022
For nearly a decade, more Alaskans have been leaving our state than moving in. Our schools and university have suffered from declining funding, and we don’t have adequate funding for police, Troopers, prosecutors, and crisis intervention to keep our streets safe. This is harming my hometown, Willow, and many communities across our state.
I spent decades building up Alaska’s economy through my work with the Anchorage Economic Development Corporation and as an executive in the oil industry. What it takes for economic growth is good schools, safe streets, and a pro-business investment climate that encourages economic diversification.
Unfortunately, Governor Mike Dunleavy’s recent budget vetoes take us in the wrong direction. Understanding the mistakes and missed opportunities in these vetoes can help us do better in the future, with the goal of growing our economy.
With an unexpected and temporary influx of oil revenue this year, the Legislature was able to fund operations, a large dividend, and invest in areas that would contribute to safer streets, stronger education systems, and a growing economy. For example, the legislature paid down the state’s share of school capital obligations, so students have functioning buildings. The Legislature funded the University of Alaska deferred maintenance, because the University is critical both for students’ future and for economic growth.
To improve public safety, the Legislature provided additional funding for prosecutors, while expanding support for crisis intervention. Legislators also worked on diversifying our economy, funding capital projects like the Long Trail to expand tourism in the Mat-Su and beyond, and seafood marketing to ensure Alaska’s renewable resource industries stay competitive in a global market. Recognizing the crisis in child care, legislators appropriated $5 million to help stabilize child care providers and ensure working families can find quality, affordable care. Our representatives also made workforce investments for the future, including in strengthening our primary care system and in construction, oil and gas training.
All of these investments would have supported long-term economic growth. Unfortunately, Governor Dunleavy vetoed them, with little logic or explanation about why Alaska should give up on opportunities to grow and strengthen our economy.
The Alaska Travel Industry Association has urged policymakers to make Alaska attractive to “independent travelers,” or visitors who plan their own trips here, including by funding the completion of the Alaska Long Trail. This is the second year the legislature appropriated funds for the trail, and the second year Governor Dunleavy vetoed it. This year, he vetoed projects on the Kenai, in Mat-Su, and Fairbanks, while approving a minority of Long Trail projects within the Municipality of Anchorage. There is nothing logical about killing iconic projects that would make Alaska more of a destination for independent travelers, and by the way these projects also make our community a better place to live for year-round residents.
The Governor vetoed 60 percent of School Major Maintenance funds and approximately half of the University of Alaska deferred maintenance funding. As a result, many of our older buildings will continue to deteriorate. Buildings without functional heat and plumbing, and with leaking roofs, undermine learning but also lead to longer-term costs for the state and local taxpayers. Every family considering where to move looks at the quality of school and university systems—to attract and retain families to Alaska we should fund our schools, and the Governor’s vetoes take us in the wrong direction.
Over the last two years, working families and businesses have urged the legislature to strengthen our child care system. Unfortunately, the Governor vetoed 80 percent of funds appropriated by the legislature.
This will only make it harder for businesses to recruit workers, and harder for working families to pay the bills. The Governor’s vetoes of workforce development and fisheries are simply baffling. At a time of critical shortages in health care workers, why would he veto funding for the Alaska Primary Care Association’s innovative program, conducted in partnership with hospitals, that would fill workforce gaps? Having spent the last year managing three health clinics I know firsthand the impact of a work force shortage! Why would he veto not just funding for seafood marketing, but funding for fisheries management in the Bering Sea and Kuskokwim Rivers, which have been profoundly affected by changing temperatures?
These vetoes simply hurt our economy and do nothing to improve opportunities for Alaska’s for future generations.
For Alaska to thrive, we need a strong education system, stable fiscal policy, and a focus on growing and diversifying our economy. The budget passed by the legislature would have met these goals, but the Governor’s vetoes risk prolonging Alaska’s out-migration, unacceptably high crime rates, and crumbling schools.
Randall Kowalke is a resident of Willow.