Kaplan: Dunleavy budget cuts would harm many Alaskans

Commentary By Diane Kaplan

For The Cordova Times

During the past month, the Rasmuson Foundation’s board of directors has urged our elected leaders to compromise and seek solutions that are best for Alaska when addressing the state’s $1 billion-plus budget gap.

We have stated our belief that a solution relying primarily on cuts will negatively affect critical services throughout the state, causing harm to many Alaskans. The Alaska Legislature responded with a budget that included $190 million of cuts, the largest decrease in year-on-year spending in state history while preserving a high quality of life for our residents.

The governor’s vetoes, announced on June 28, will harm Alaska’s most vulnerable citizens and have a significant and detrimental impact on our state’s economy. The impact of these decisions will carry negative consequences well beyond this year, affecting generations to come.

The budget he signed into law has set off a battle that addresses the soul of Alaska, who we are and what we represent, and the kind of state we hope to leave to future generations.

Since 2016, the Rasmuson Foundation has been conversing with Alaskans about the budget through town halls, community meetings and online discussions. Research shows that a majority of Alaskans prefer a multifaceted approach to balancing our state budget.

Yes, this includes reducing spending, but it also means exploring new ways to generate revenue and the use of Permanent Fund earnings will need to be part of the solution.

The vetoes must be closely examined by our elected officials.

The defunding of housing and services for families and individuals experiencing homelessness is inhumane. It’s estimated that the cuts to Brother Francis Shelter, Clare House, Covenant House and Abused Women’s Aid in Crisis in Anchorage will put hundreds of people out on the street, adding to an already intolerable homeless population of 1,100.

Very low-income seniors will be pushed into homelessness with the loss of their senior benefits.

The closing of Head Start programs for low income families will decimate the childcare options now available to working parents and force many into public assistance.

About 700 professionals will be laid off from UAA and 40 student programs shuttered. It’s estimated that 3,000 students will be directly affected.

Whether a local government, business, nonprofit or individual, we all benefit when we are able to plan. Businesses want certainty in regulation and taxation, which in turn allows them to build strategically. Individuals base decisions like buying a house on what they expect their annual household income to be. Dramatic changes — the sudden repeal of a law or elimination of a job — can cause chaos not just on an individual level, but across entire communities.

Nonprofits are no different. They build budgets each year using the best available data. When we cut expenditures for homeless services, housing, legal assistance, telecommunications and health care as dramatically as was proposed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, our nonprofits will have to drastically change the way they do business, and they’ll have to do it overnight.

It will be the financial equivalent of the 7.1 earthquake that hit Southcentral Alaska last November. But this time, there is no state or federal agency to step in and help handle the emergency. That’s because Alaska’s nonprofits handle emergencies on a daily basis, as they are the stopgap between homelessness and having a place to rest your head. Between hunger and having a warm meal. The place houses women and children who need a safe haven.

Total state general fund spending has been cut from almost $7.8 billion in fiscal 2013 to about $4.5 billion in fiscal 2018. It is change that has been painful but measured in annual steps. As a result, systems in health care, education, resource management and the arts continue to serve Alaskans while adapting to a new reality.

Massive cuts will dismantle, in just one year, services, organizations and programs that took decades to build. These cuts are a priority of the governor, but what about Alaskans? Do these cuts represent the philosophies and beliefs of Alaskans?

Given the high level of community support across the state for nonprofit groups and education, from the arts to services for the poor and vulnerable, it seems unlikely that the depth of these cuts represents Alaska residents’ beliefs.

The Rasmuson Foundation promotes a better life for Alaskans; our mission guides us every day to be part of a solution that improves the quality of life for all Alaskans. We believe notice is critical for Alaskans to plan, make the hard decisions and adjust. Reducing spending — dramatically and on such short notice — will significantly diminish certainty and confidence in Alaska. We can and must do better. The budget, as reduced by the governor’s vetoes, does not embody the values of the Alaska we all support and love.

Dian Kaplan is the president and chief executive officer of Rasmuson Foundation. Prior to that she did consulting services for philanthropic organizations, Native corporations, tribes and nonprofit organizations. Before that was the chief executive officer of Alaska’s public radio network.