Journalistic shorthand on Dunleavy's fiscal fantasy needs to be retired

In its summation of what it claims Alaskans have learned from the Dunleavy budget fiasco, the Anchorage Daily News repeats the statement that Gov. Mike Dunleavy campaigned for office on budget cuts.

There is a slim slice of truth in that comment as every candidate for every office in Alaska’s history has made promises about the need to cut this or that. It means nothing without identifying whether you want to cut oil tax credits or teachers, to give one example.

In Dunleavy’s case, what news organizations in Alaska missed in 2018 and continue to misrepresent in editorials and news stories is that his budget-cutting talk was a complete con.

The biggest alleged cut he wanted was the elimination of a $200 million slush fund that he claimed to have discovered. It didn’t exist, which is why it didn’t fit in his “Honest Budget” this year.

I keep waiting for Dunleavy or temporary budget director Donna Arudin to explain just what happened to the imaginary employees.

Yes, he talked about the need for budget cuts last year in a general way that allowed every listener to hear what he/she wanted. Dunleavy supporters interpreted his vague assurances as a pledge to end waste, fraud, abuse, bloat and inefficiency, while curing every real or imagined grievance about government.

The emptiness of Dunleavy’s budget conversation came through whenever he was pressed for specifics. He didn’t have any of substance. He promised not to cut spending on ferries, schools, the University of Alaska, the Pioneer Homes, Power Cost Equalization, the prison system, public safety, etc. Here is the Dunleavy catalog of budget promises.

It was all part of a feel-good campaign plan for lower spending, higher dividends and more oil in the pipeline that would solve everything. Our politics is such that candidate Dunleavy was never forced to deal with the facts of his fiscal fantasy tour.

I wrote here last year that one thing Dunleavy and former Sen. Mark Begich shared was a penchant for pandering on the Permanent Fund Dividend. They both stuck to crowd-pleasing fiscal plans based on illusions.

I know I have made this point many times in the past year, but the context of the final 2020 budget signed by Dunleavy will remain distorted by such offhand comments as the ADN statement this weekend that “a budget-balancing plan based on cuts was a key plank of Gov. Dunleavy’s platform” during 2018.

That phrase needs to be followed by the specific cuts identified by Dunleavy. It is just as misleading as claiming he campaigned for a balanced budget. He was as reluctant with details as he is tall, continuing a long history of contradictory claims about fixing the state budget.

More than two-and-a-half years ago, Dunleavy said he wanted people to stop asking him "What do you want to cut?" as the first question.

He said the first thing to do was to figure out how much Alaskans wanted to spend, instead of dealing with all the controversy that comes with announcing cuts and getting attacked. Settle that number and the cuts would follow, he said.

"It's a lockbox. And then you kind of duke it out, if you need to … inside that lockbox," said Dunleavy in 2017.

In 2018, when Dunleavy had to deal with specific budget cuts, he usually started with the 2,000 imaginary unfilled state jobs. Then he would move on to cutting “climatologists,” which might save a hundred thousand or two, plans to make government more efficient and the $4.5 million fast rail study.

For months he kept saying he would end the fast rail study, unaware that it had never been approved by the Legislature and didn’t exist.

The ADN and every other news organization should feel free to say that he made budget cuts a key plank in his program, as long as they include the laughable specifics.

In his taped remarks Monday about the final budget, Dunleavy expounded on a recent theme in which he tries to explain away his campaign fiscal fantasy by pretending it was not his fault that oil prices are unpredictable.

“As a candidate, under a far more favorable revenue picture, I believed we could make significant changes to our budget through a series of cost savings, efficiencies and targeted reforms,” he said. “In October of 2018 the price of oil was trending at nearly $85 per barrel. But when we took office in December oil prices had plummeted to near $55 per barrel, cutting over $1.7 billion in potential revenue in less than three months.”

“This forced my administration to take a drastically different approach to the budget, in which steeper reductions had to be made,” he said.

(It was not a loss of $1.7 billion in real money. That is the subject for another post.)

Long before oil prices dropped last fall, the errors in Dunleavy’s math and his made-up numbers were clear for all to see. As I wrote here on Sept. 6, 2018, “He acts as if it makes sense to believe that oil prices, now at $76, can be counted on to stay at that level or higher.”

What Dunleavy doesn’t say or perhaps even realize is that no responsible candidate for governor should be able to excuse his false budget claims by blaming the world price of oil and failing to take responsibility for a con job.

Dermot Cole7 Comments