With signs reading “Gut fish, not Alaska,” “Support Education, not handouts” and “Keep Alaskans educated, healthy, employed, thriving,” about 135 demonstrators gathered Sunday in front of the Legislative Information Office to protest Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s budget cuts.
The voices of the demonstrators had partial success on Monday when the Alaska Legislature voted to appropriate money for a capital budget and pass a “reverse sweep” putting funds back into specific accounts such as the University of Alaska scholarship fund. The Legislature also rolled back about 75 percent of Dunleavy’s budget cuts.
The names of Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer, and Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, on the front of the LIO were the target of the July 28 protest. While a few signs were not-safe-for-work, and there were some boos when Dunleavy’s name was mentioned, the protest was civil and orderly, right down to guards in orange vests who helped people get across Pioneer Avenue safely at the corner by Bartlett Street.
Stevens voted “yes” on the capital budget, the reverse sweep and restoring budget cuts. Vance voted “no.”
A large sign that read “Save Alaska’s ___” with white space below prompted people to respond. In large block letters, one person wrote “Soul.” The sign served as a backdrop for speakers ranging in age from teenage to pioneer.
Speaker Xochitl Lopez-Ayala jokingly asked for a moment of silence for the Legislative staffers who would be getting calls and emails this week.
“I need you to email, call, Tweet, however you do it, to let Gary Stevens and Sarah Vance know that we’re here, and we need them to represent us, and we need to have funding reinstated for all the governor’s vetoes,” she said.
Mercedes Harness, one of the organizers of the protest, spoke of her frustration trying to reach Vance and only receiving a form letter.
“I thought, ‘She doesn’t care,’” Harness said. “And does a person’s voice matter, as we all keep telling each other they do, if the person on the receiving end doesn’t seem to care? It is hard not to be demoralized.”
Harness noted the upcoming vote Monday on Senate Bill 2002, which would fund a capital budget and do a “reverse sweep,” putting money for things like scholarships back into their accounts. A previous vote fell one vote shy of the 30 needed, with Vance voting against it.
Vance is part of a minority in the Legislature insistent on paying out a $3,000 Permanent Fund Dividend. Vance ran on a promise to pay a full $3,000 PFD, but during the election she also dodged questions about how she would make deep cuts to the budget if the PFD wasn’t reduced or new taxes created.
Harness said Vance should reconsider her position on the PFD.
“It is an honorable thing to be capable of changing your mind when given a broad array of facts that disrupt your preconceived beliefs,” Harness said.
University of Alaska graduate Teresa Sundmark spoke against cuts to the university budget.
“The University of Alaska research is top notch when it comes to climate change, when it comes to Arctic studies,” she said. “… This is not just about funding, it is not just about money. For every one dollar of research that the state invests, six dollars comes into the state. Research into the Arctic and climate change studies is an investment in Alaska.”
Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly member Willy Dunne, who represents the lower Kenai Peninsula, spoke on how Dunleavy’s cuts to state support for school and borough bonds would impact borough taxpayers.
“Make no doubt about it,” he said. “It will cost in higher taxes for us. It’s cost shifting. … She (Vance) wants to pass the cost on to you, the local taxpayers.”
Retired school teacher Kiki Abrahamson read Naomi Shihab-Nye’s poem, “Famous,” with lines like “The river is famous to the fish” and “The idea you carry close to your bosum / is famous to your bosum.”
Abrahamson said she wants Alaska to be famous.
“I want Alaska to be famous for valuing education and providing education for students through our school districts and university systems,” she said. “I want Alaska to be famous for respecting and taking care of our elders and seniors. I want want Alaska to be famous for funding Head Start … I want Alaska to be famous for getting on board with these individuals who might be struggling in terms of Medicaid and the hospital and homeless needs. I want Alaska to be famous for endorsing the contributions of art to our state. … I want Alaska to be famous because it never forgot what it could do and what it was supposed to do.”
Adele Person said the solution to Alaska’s budget problems could come from looking again at oil taxes.
“Or we can be grown ups and pay personal taxes like every state in the union,” she said. “…There are a ton of solutions right now, and we’re making this horrible problem that is gutting the future of our state.”
Former borough assembly member Milli Martin spoke in favor of arts funding. She noted how when she volunteers at the Homer Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center, tourists stop by wanting to know about Homer’s culture.
“It’s amazing to me how many come in wanting to see our art work,” she said.