Point of View: Embarrassing Alaska through neglectful governance

When Gov. Mike Dunleavy learned Dr. Ben Carson would be speaking in Alaska, he made time on his calendar to spend with the former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. But despite the fact the state is receiving hundreds of millions of dollars of federal infrastructure funds, a week earlier he opted not to participate in a formal visit by Pete Buttigieg, the current U.S. Secretary of Transportation.

Behind those decisions is the mentality that’s guided Dunleavy during his almost five years in office. Give plenty of attention to the constituency that shares his values. And undermine the government programs that aren’t in alignment with them.

Carson wasn’t here on official business. Invited by the Anchorage Republican Women’s Club, he came to share his conservative perspectives. On Monday, he spoke to them and to the children at an elementary school in Wasilla. The next day in Anchorage he ended a meeting with parents, students and teachers by reading the children’s book he wrote about Judeo-Christian values in America.

Now I don’t have a problem with Carson addressing conservative audiences. Or any audience for that matter. But from an official duty perspective, Dunleavy had a far greater obligation to discuss Alaskan transportation issues with Buttigieg than accompany a notable speaker to events attended by his favored constituencies.

Why Dunleavy’s slighted Buttigieg is anyone’s guess. It could be a matter of fealty to Donald Trump, who lost the White House to Buttigieg’s boss. Or that Trump didn’t support the infrastructure bill. Maybe it’s because Sen. Lisa Murkowski was instrumental in crafting the bill but is very much despised by the grievance-driven former president.

Dunleavy might have been interested if he could use infrastructure funds for accessing remote natural resource projects he enthusiastically supports. Like the Estelle Gold Project located in the Alaska Range, which he visited the week before Buttigieg arrived.

But he probably didn’t join Buttigieg and Murkowski in Juneau or Haines because he hasn’t supported the Alaska Marine Highway System that connects the two communities. Indeed, during his first year in office, he gutted the agency’s budget and upended reliable service across the state. And Murkowski effectively embarrassed him by championing the infrastructure bill which will save the system that he tried to ruin.

And as evidenced by another of his early acts, he despises the unions that represent ferry workers and all other state employees.

In August 2019, Dunleavy attempted to unilaterally rewrite the rules regarding union dues deductions. The Alaska State Employees Association sued. In May, the Alaska Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that his action violated the law.

Attorney General Treg Taylor wasn’t happy about that. “For the state, this case is about protecting the First Amendment rights of public sector employees,” he claimed.

But Taylor knows full well Dunleavy doesn’t value the free speech rights of everyone. The state just settled a lawsuit against him and his former chief of staff for illegally firing a state attorney over protected speech they didn’t like. In a similar case, a Superior Court judge ruled that two psychiatrists “were fired for failing to endorse or pledge allegiance” to Dunleavy’s political agenda.

A big part of that agenda was to drastically reduce the size of state government. The message sent to thousands of state employees by the budget cuts he enacted his first year was their jobs were expendable.

Now, through design or neglect, his administration is failing to deliver paychecks on time to many of them. That’s due to a serious staffing shortage in the state’s payroll division. The first hint of the problem came when state ferry workers complained in March. It contributed to the inability to hire crew members, which in turn led to more canceled sailings.

And last winter, staff shortages in the Alaska Division of Public Assistance created a long backlog in processing federal food stamp applications, leaving thousands of Alaskans without the means to adequately feed their families.

I’m sure Dunleavy enjoyed the two days he spent chumming around with Carson. But running a government isn’t about having fun. And as we’re seeing once again, neglecting the government functions he doesn’t like has resulted in failures that look bad for the state and should be embarrassing to him.

Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident and retired civil engineer with more than 25 years of experience working in the public sector.