Remember when candidate Mike Dunleavy promised every man, woman, and child in Alaska checks in excess of $6,000 if he was elected governor?
Recently, Governor Mike Dunleavy took the road less travelled and issued a video statement, avoiding the press altogether, to announce that he has mostly accepted the Legislature’s budget, complete with a $1,600 PFD. He also hinted that the he would call yet another special session to consider an additional PFD amount of $1,400. But given the Legislature’s consistent stance on the issue, that seems highly unlikely.
In January, Governor Dunleavy proposed a “payback” of PFD payouts that were withheld by both Governor Walker and the Legislature in previous years. The plan, outlined in SB 23 and SB 24, would have paid back $1,061 in 2019, $1,289 in 2020, and $1,328 in 2021. This would have added billions of dollars to the deficit.
This populist stance, along with the entrance of former U.S. Senator Mark Begich into the race, led to the election of Governor Dunleavy.
Promising people money in an attempt to get elected is a dangerous proposition, as Dunleavy is now learning. The most well known populist movement for president was by William Jennings Bryan, who gave the famous “Cross of Gold” speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1896. In the Cross of Gold speech, Bryan promised a move away from the gold standard and said that he supported the idea of “free silver.” Free silver would have allowed people to mint coins out of silver and would have drastically increased the money supply in the country, leading to rampant inflation.
While Dunleavy’s “free money” campaign wasn’t quite the same as the “free silver” campaign, the two are definitely cut from the same cloth. The problem with these populist stances is that they are hard to fulfill. If they are able to be fulfilled, they would lead to drastic economic consequences, and when they fail, there’s nothing left to fall back on.
Dunleavy didn’t work well with the Legislature this session either, which probably hurt any chances he had of fulfilling his PFD promise. Many legislators, staff, and other everyday observers noted that over the course of the regular session his staff were basically absent from the legislative halls.
He also tried to lay all of the difficult decisions at the front door of the Capitol. He proposed a budget with draconian cuts that could never withstand public muster with no realistic provision to pay out any PFD, much less the massive check he promised.
Any mandate Governor Dunleavy had was entirely tied to his PFD proposal, both of which are now resting peacefully in the vastly expanding graveyard of political ideations.
Now, here we are, in a new political landscape with whatever mandate Dunleavy might have thought he had cancelled out by nearly 40,000 Alaskan signatures on a recall petition, a reduced PFD, and no payback for money withheld in previous PFDs.
So where does Dunleavy, and more importantly, Alaska go from here?
Assuming he survives being only the 3rd governor ever successfully recalled in the United States, he still has an uphill climb to regain any semblance of relevancy in the eyes of both the voters and legislators – to whom his recent attempts at flexing have failed miserably. Dunleavy and Alaska’s Legislature will face some tough questions in the coming years.
Will he push for more extreme cuts and higher PFDs in the future? What is the future of the University of Alaska, of Medicaid, municipal revenue sharing, and for addiction and mental health care treatment in Alaska?
How will he rebound from a recall election and try to set himself up for re-election? After a failed attempt at this populist approach, what will he do in the next three years to convince voters to come back to the polls for him?
Dunleavy has an uphill battle to climb, regardless of what happens with the current recall movement. But one thing is clear, he is going to have to learn how to work better with the members of the Legislature to accomplish whatever it is they collectively hope to accomplish in the coming years.
Mike Dingman was born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska. He has worked in Alaska politics since the late 90s. He is now a ”homegrown outsider” keeping up on his home state from the Lower 48.