By Jahna Lindemuth
For The Cordova Times
Make no mistake about it: Every Alaskan will be negatively impacted by the governor’s budget cuts. The cuts are deep and wide and will change our collective way of life unless the Legislature votes to override the cuts. Because services and programs that Alaskans – especially our most vulnerable – count on every day are at stake, Alaska’s constitution is implicated. Unlike every other state, Alaska’s constitution, the foundational document of our state government, mandates that the governor and the Legislature protect the health, safety and welfare of this great state for all Alaskans. That is the very purpose of our state government. The governor’s cuts are not only irresponsible, they are unconstitutional.
Article VII, Section 4 of the Alaska Constitution states that “the Legislature shall provide for the promotion and protection of public health.” Article VII, Section 5 states that “the Legislature shall provide for public welfare.” Article VII, Sections I through III state that the Legislature “shall establish and maintain public schools open to all children of the State.” And establishes our state university.
Let’s start with public safety. On the very day that President Donald Trump’s Attorney General, William Barr declared a law enforcement emergency in rural Alaska and made more than $10 million immediately available to bolster public safety, Gov. Mike Dunleavy cut $6 million from the Village Public Safety Officer program for those on the front lines providing law enforcement in rural Alaska.
Ironically, while the federal funds cannot pay the salaries of the VPSO officers, the federal government will be providing millions of dollars to equip VPSO officers whose positions are no longer funded in the governor’s budget.
Directly related to public safety is early education funding. As attorney general, one of the things I learned was that early education funding provided the biggest return on investment in our criminal justice system. Those children who are prepared for kindergarten through Head Start or other similar programs receive intervention early in life and are far more likely to become successful adults and avoid contacts with our criminal justice system later in life.
The governor eliminated all funding for early education programs. Gone. This, again, will especially impact rural Alaska, as a higher percentage of children in rural Alaska have historically accessed these programs.
Let’s talk about health and welfare. Gone are dental care, behavioral health grants, homeless assistance, elder assistance and other health programs for our neediest citizens. Gone is needed funding for the public defender’s agency defending low income Alaskans. Gone is critical funding for Alaska Legal Services that provides no-cost legal services to low-income Alaskans for other legal needs, including domestic violence intervention.
The governor’s cuts to Alaska Legal Services, as well as his closure of domestic violence shelters, will mean that victims of domestic violence will have far less access to protective orders and other basic safety services.
The constitution, in Article VII, mandates that the state provides public education. That means both teachers and buildings. Cutting debt reimbursement for municipalities for education facilities breaks promises to those municipalities and all Alaskans, and directly threatens K-12 education, as those costs are shifted to the municipalities providing education to our children. The constitution also specifically addresses the state university. Gutting our university system will mean the closure of many campuses and the end of many programs. Future Alaskans will not have access to higher education. We are turning back the clock 50 years and erasing the many years we spent developing a university we can be proud of.
Taken alone, any one of these cuts may not violate the constitution. But collectively, the cuts are unconstitutional because they threaten public safety and the welfare of all Alaskans. Crime will increase exponentially if the Legislature does not reverse these cuts.
Finally, vetoing court system funding out of retribution for abortion decisions raises serious separation of powers concerns under our constitution. We have three co-equal branches of government for checks and balances that provides to protect all Alaskans. We can only hope now that the Legislature steps forward to provide the needed check on the governor.
I was born here 50 years ago and have been happy to call Alaska home. I hope that 50 years from now, we don’t look back and recall how 2019 was the beginning of the end.
Jahna Lindemuth served as Attorney General under the administration of Gov. Bill Walker. She is now in private practice in Anchorage.