UA budget falls victim to superficial democracy

Gov. Mike Dunleavy proposed his FY20 budget to the public on Feb. 13. Amidst the roughly $1.6 billion in cuts is a proposed reduction in the state’s subsidy to the University of Alaska. This reduction isn’t trivial. In an email to students and staff that day, UA President Jim Johnsen warned that the cut would remove 41 percent of the operating budget and force a restructuring process, unlike anything the university has experienced in its history. The budget proposal will still work its way through the legislative process. Amendments may soften the blow, but the end result is still subject to the governor’s veto pen. The university should not expect to make it out unscathed.

Dunleavy highlighted a guiding principle in his budget that expenditures cannot exceed existing revenues in a budget. A noble pursuit, but responsible fiscal austerity is a highly technical process that requires patience and attention to detail. Broad strokes that attempt to erase a deficit immediately, regardless of outcomes, show something else. It shows a democracy that values superficial answers to complex problems.

We have seen this problem manifest in Alaska politics for quite some time. Most voters do not have the time or interest to examine the details of the state budget, even though it is posted on the state website. So they are content with making very simple suggestions that correspond to their political biases. Suggestions like those that compare the state budget to family finance or pin all of the blame on some faceless bureaucrats somewhere.

Dunleavy’s problem isn’t in the principle. Alaska absolutely should strive for a limited and solvent government. The problem here is the politics behind the intentions. Dunleavy probably doesn’t expect that this budget will actually go through in the manner that he wrote it. It is also unlikely that he expects to achieve any long-term fiscal plan for Alaska. The point is just to propose a simple solution to a complex problem, something that voters can latch on to in the next election cycle. Even if the budget is amended and the deficit remains, Dunleavy will be able to communicate to his supporters that he did his part and that any blame lies with the legislature. This is a compelling argument in a superficial democracy.

The governor isn’t just using this problem, he is a product of it. Dunleavy skipped many of the debates and speaking events during the 2018 gubernatorial race. These were forums for candidates to be directly accountable to the constituency. In the few times that candidate Dunleavy was pressed for answers on budgeting, he responded with amorphous theories about increased oil production on the North Slope in the future. It didn’t matter that the quantity of barrels flowing out of the pipeline is of far less concern to the budget than the price each barrel can be sold at. Dunleavy didn’t need to flesh out detailed ideas and he didn’t need to attend any of the forums. All he needed was to bring up the PFD and SB91. Those two issues play into a narrow self-interest calculus exhibited by voters. They end up experiencing tunnel vision on the issues that are the simplest and most relevant to them while failing to take in the real complexities of the “bigger picture.”

Alaskan democracy isn’t in the worst shape imaginable. But these superficial elements, particularly the call for simple answers to complex problems, are actually harming our institutions. Education, healthcare, law and natural resource management are four state obligations where highly technical policies need to be crafted by the career professionals in those subjects. When people try to weigh in with oversimplified suggestions, it carries the risk of actually turning into real changes via superficial politicians. That is what we may see a lot of during this current administration, as evidenced by the string of poorly-vetted appointees. Some of those appointees had bad ideas as unelected citizens and could turn those into reality as civil servants.

I used to think that prudent politicians could stem this wave by just being honest and straightforward with the constituency. But voters eject those politicians from office, and charlatans seize the throne. It can be tough to admit that the biggest problem with Alaska’s governance is with Alaskan voters themselves. It means that we accept responsibility and we have to work to correct it.

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Education plays a role in that. The Anchorage School District can make more room for classes on civics and government. The University of Alaska can ensure that its classrooms remain protected by the freedom of speech so that students can be exposed to a variety of ideas and practice scrutiny. After all, education holds the key to promote the best of democracy, even if it has to suffer the worst of democracy to get there.

Views expressed in the opinion section do not reflect the views of The Northern Light.