Over the weekend, the House Finance Committee engaged Alaskans in several listening sessions spanning the state. Meetings gauging public opinion on Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy’s proposed budget were held last Friday in Bethel, Fairbanks, Juneau, Kenai, Ketchikan, the Mat-Su, Sitka, and Soldotna, finishing with packed crowds at the Anchorage Legislative Information Office on Sunday.
For about two-and-a-half hours, over a hundred residents of Alaska’s most populous city weighed in, easily eclipsing the LIO’s occupancy limits and spilling over to an overflow room as each attendee waited for their designated couple of minutes of redress. The overwhelming majority of those who spoke opposed the governor’s proposed budget.
Notably absent was the governor, who is hosting his own slate of “Roadshow” appearances defending his budget, which calls for over $1 billion in cuts. Those cuts affect virtually every facet of state government in Alaska, including $443 million to education, $336 million to health care, and $57 million to transportation. His plan, through separate proposals, calls for an additional $1.9 billion in spending to pay back portions of the Permanent Fund Dividend used by his predecessor, Gov. Bill Walker, to fund government services while avoiding similar cuts.
“The first leg of the Governor’s roadshow includes a number of meetings, events, media interviews and community-based discussions in partnership with groups and organizations from across the state,” Dunleavy Press Secretary, Matt Shuckerow, described the scheduled events in a press release last week. “These presentations – the first of many – all focus on the tough discussions ahead, our state’s undeniable fiscal challenges, and exactly how the governor intends to let Alaskans determine their own future.”
However, it became quickly apparent just a day later that the billing offered by the governor’s office left a considerable bit out. The events – planned in Kenai, Anchorage, Nome, Fairbanks, and Wasilla – are hosted by the Alaska Chapter of Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a libertarian/conservative public advocacy group created and funded by the Koch brothers. AFP is one of the most influential conservative groups in the United States – one of 15 groups that accounted for a full three-quarters of all anonymous money dumped into political campaigns since the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United (2010).
Alaskans wishing to participate in the governor’s roadshow events must register through AFP’s event page listings and agree to multiple conditions, including a requirement that “attendees to sign over their rights to be photographed and their images to be used for whatever purpose Americans for Prosperity sees fit,” Matt Buxton noted for The Midnight Sun. “It also bars people from bringing anything with a political message, whether it’s a sign or clothing. Attendees would be forbidden from making recordings or transmitting the meeting. It also allows AFP to remove anyone from the meeting[.]”
AFP-Alaska Director Ryan McKee told The Anchorage Daily News‘s James Brooks that the terms were “boilerplate,” and did not signify that the group or the governor’s office would be “selectively choosing who’s attending and who’s not.” The registration, McKee explained, was “only because the spaces are too small for the expected crowds,” according to Brooks.
McKee noted that renting out a venue to accommodate a larger crowd (specifically, he referenced the Dena’ina Center as one example) would cost $10,000. Ironically, two days later, the governor’s office would concede it had spent nearly that amount ($9,000) on radio ads, sans disclosure, promoting the events.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich (D-Anchorage) fired back at AFP’s involvement in the roadshows, calling it another broken campaign promise and drawing attention to the lengthy disclaimer of terms and conditions for the event (which has since been removed from the event listing).
“Holding private events to promote his anti-Alaska agenda, which is sponsored and paid for by special interests that are funded by radical outsiders, is not the Alaskan way,” Begich expounded in a press release. “Alaska’s governor should be open, transparent, and dedicated to serving Alaskans, not multi-billionaires from Kansas and their political agenda.”
The first event, held in Kenai Monday evening, boasted a sold out crowd that heavily favored the Dunleavy budget, according to Tom Kizzia, writing for The Anchorage Daily News. The script paralleled the goals of AFP to promote deep budget cuts while carefully avoiding any potential new revenues by way of a state incomes tax or repealing the per-barrel tax credit – the former, under a plan proposed under Gov. Bill Walker, was estimated to bring in around $300 million per year; the latter currently allows oil companies to deduct roughly $1.25 billion annually.
Dunleavy praised AFP’s push to convince states to adopt a “Taxpayer Bill of Rights,” forcing voters to approve any new taxes or tax increases. The Senate State Affairs Committee has scheduled hearings later this week on a proposed constitutional amendment, from Dunleavy, with those exact ends (SJR4).
“Monday night’s presentation thus resembled that of a Doctors Without Borders task force describing plans to ward off an Ebola epidemic, with Dunleavy warning how the risk of ‘predatory taxes’ would scare off investment until Alaska’s budget was balanced,” Kizzia painted the scene. “Multiple speakers referred to taxes as ‘government reaching into your pocket.’”
Outside the event, dozens of protesters lined the parking lot with signs targeting the Dunleavy-AFP partnership. One parodied the governor’s campaign slogan, reading, “Standing Tall for Koch.” The Alaska Landmine‘s Jeff Landfield spoke with one attendee, who said of the presentation, “It was just like a sales pitch for a time share. Except we didn’t get a gift.”
Many Alaskans have expressed similar frustration. The Alaska AFL-CIO told the ADN they had attained a permit to host a protest Monday night, across the street from the Anchorage roadshow at the 49th State Brewing Co. A coalition including the Alaska Center for the Environment, Alaska Public Interest Research Group (AKPIRG), Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii, Native Peoples Action, the NAACP-Anchorage, and others have joined the AFL-CIO in those efforts, calling themselves “Save Our State.”
Tuesday evening delivered a spectacle on streets generally bare this time of year. Attendants of the governor’s event trickled into 49th State Brewing Co. (including former Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell and local radio host Dave Stieren) behind an impromptu truck that served as the stage for speakers there to protest it. In front of them, a crowd of hundreds filled the street.
Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz (who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2010) led the crowd in a chant, asking, “What should we do with the governor’s budget?” to which the crowd responded enthusiastically, “Screw it!”
“My challenge to all of you today is to stand up for Alaska. Don’t just stand tall for Alaska,” Berkowitz charged — another callback to Dunleavy’s campaign slogan. “This state is all we can make it. But, if we are quiet today — if our voices are not heard — then our state will be lost. And too many people have sacrificed too much and worked for too long for us to let that go by. Are you going to stand up for Alaska? Are we going to stand together? Are you going to make this state all that it can be?”
The crowd registered its approval at a decibel level that certainly penetrated the building he spoke in front of, where Dunleavy’s presentation was just getting underway (behind blacked out windows).
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