Nome protesters greet Governor and his roadshow
Nome is not known for being politically loud. But on Wednesday, a good number of Nomeites spoke loud and clear their opposition to Governor Mike Dunleavy’s roadshow paid for by the group Americans for Prosperity and his proposed budget cuts that are perceived as devastating to rural Alaska.
Confusion surrounded the announcement that the governor, the commissioner of revenue, the attorney general and the office of management and budget director would come to Nome as part of a statewide roadshow sponsored by the Alaska chapter of Americans for Prosperity “to discuss how and why Alaska must face its fiscal reality and implement reforms that will curb the government’s habit of overspending.” The confusion came about as it is widely assumed that elected officials are to be accessible to all their constituents in public meetings. However, AFP required those who wanted to attend the meeting to pre-register and agree to conditions that would have precluded them to bring in bags bigger than a purse, no recording devices but to sign away their rights to have AFP use photos and footage taken at the meeting at will, for AFP’s purposes. A media advisory from AFP said that the event is free and open to the public and that the amount of interested attendees would likely exceed the capacity of the venue.
Many took exception to that. Maureen Koezuna, a 40-year resident of Nome who has never organized political protest, did so last week. “I was upset that Americans for Prosperity was sponsoring the trip and I didn’t agree with the registration requirements,” she said. In addition to disagreeing with how the meeting was structured, the budget cuts in Governor Dunleavy’s budget proposal did not sit well with her. She said she followed a lively debate on social media and decided to connect with others to organize the protest, which she said was solely organized by Nome residents. “Nobody contacted us to do anything,” Koezuna said.
The group of protesters met at the Welcome to Nome sign on Seppala Drive outside the airport after the governor arrived on the mid-day Alaska Airlines flight. A separate incident with a woman who voiced her dissent to the Governor’s politics happened at the airport. (See story below).
According to a video released by the Governor’s office, Dunleavy met at city hall with port commissioners, the mayor and city council members.
At 4 p.m. a crowd gathered outside of Old St. Joe’s holding up signs that read “Fund our Future”, “Education is an Investment, Don’t Jeopardize our Future”,” “Medicaid means LIFE,” “Alaskans can save our budget challenges. Koch Bros Go Home”, among others.
Despite the announcements that only preregistered individuals would be allowed to enter, no registration was taken, no press badges were handed out, not even a guest book or list to register was present. A small crowd of people who were pre-registered took their seats inside Old St. Joe’s. From outside, protest chants, many of the protesters being Nome Beltz students, could be heard.
Ryan McKee, state director for AFP-Alaska chapter, introduced the governor and opened the roadshow with the governor presenting a slideshow of his arguments, while Revenue commissioner Bruce Tangeman, OMB Director Donna Arduin, Attorney General Kevin Clarkson looked on. Only Arduin was called upon to offer explanations on Medicaid and University cuts.
Governor Dunleavy thanked those present for the opportunity to talk directly. “It’s better to do this one-on-one as opposed to through newspapers, sometimes there’s different views on what’s really happening,” he said.
He conceded that there are different opinions all over the state, different opinions on taxes and on the use of the PFD. He presented his view on the history of Alaskan spending and gave a fast crash course in why the state is in a budget deficit.
The pivotal year, he said, was in 2007 when budget was going through the roof as oil prices were high and money was flowing freely to state coffers. He pointed out that when oil prices crashed, and revenue declined, legislators did not reduce their spending. He repeated that state expenditures ought not to exceed existing revenues.
“We are the most indebted state in the nation, per capita,” Dunleavy claimed.
To address the budget deficit, he proposes a fiscal plan of cuts and three constitutional amendments that would protect the dividend, that would prevent the legislature from enacting new taxes or tax increases without the vote of the people and that would introduce a spending cap and a savings plan.
He talked about an investor’s conference he recently attended in Texas and said that investors are just waiting to come to Alaska for business. “But investment is waiting for us to figure out our fiscal situation,” Dunleavy said. He said taxes would repel investors and would drive Alaskans out of state.
He said his budget office is looking at efficiencies everywhere. For example, the Alaska Marine Highway System is not profitable, so “we’re trying to find a way to increase efficiencies and save money we don’t have so we don’t have to subsidize it.”
Speaking of subsidies, Dunleavy left it up to Donna Arduin to explain slashing the University’s budget. “Alaska subsidizes its University students more than twice that of other states,” she said. But that did not result in high graduation rates. She said four-year programs have only a 10 percent graduation rate. “We try to challenge the University system here to do something that really serves Alaskans,” she said.
The door opened briefly and the Nome-Beltz students could be heard chanting, “We are the future.”
Talking about education, Dunleavy continued, it’s a painful conversation to have as an educator, he said. Pointing to a chart, he said, spending is growing but the population served is not and again he pointed to the underperforming school system. “Generally speaking, Alaskan school districts as a system aren’t doing so well compared to others in the nation,” he said. Alaskans are dead last in some reading and math scores. “This is a problem. Not a good situation. That doesn’t mean that teachers don’t work hard, they work their tails off, but they’re overregulated. We’re talking with legislators to make things easier for teachers.”
“Everybody agrees we have a deficit and everybody agrees we have to do something about it. What do we do? Take the PFD? We’ll be back here in two, three years having the same conversation,” Dunleavy said. He talked along AFP lines on reigning in government spending, he brought up the Colorado Tax Bill of Rights, which Arduin argued made Colorado into the second highest economy in the union and attracted scores of investors.
At one point, Mo Koezuna said, Sue Steinacher came outside to inform the protesters outside that the registration requirement was not enforced and that the meeting appeared to be open to all. A surge of people came inside to hear the governor’s presentation. Once it was finished, the format envisioned by AFP was to read questions from the audience from index cards handed out.
Melanie Bahnke speaks
After a few questions were read and answered, Kawerak CEO and President Melanie Bahnke raised her hand. An aide came trying to give her an index card to write on. Bahnke politely declined and kept raising her hand. Another aide tried her luck and again Bahnke declined to accept that way to communicate with the governor, keeping her hand raised. Then two voices from the audience tried to bring attention to Bahnke’s silent request to be heard. Samuel Johns spoke up and immediately two police officers, who were in the back of the room approached him, but backed off when he fell silent. Spontaneously members of the audience in the back began quietly pointing towards Bahnke, directing the attention to her.
Finally, after the last pre-filed question was read and answered, the governor gave her permission to speak.
Bahnke stood up and welcomed the governor to Nome, speaking as a mother, a lifelong Alaskan and the President and CEO of Kawerak. “I have some suggestions for you,” she said. “First I’d like to invite you back and Kawerak will fund your travel. Earlier, I wasn’t aware if I was allowed in here because of the group that sponsors the trip and is hosting this visit, there was confusion as to the rights to use our image to be signed away and I made it clear to your group that I don’t want my image used by any political action group.
“There is some confusion of who’s allowed in here or not. Our community is very diverse. We’re not strangers to having difficult conversations. We’re about 50 percent Native and 50 percent non-native.
“There is a saying ‘When in Rome…’ I’d like to use that. So when in Nome, the protocol typically is not to be exclusive of who’s allowed to come and access our elected officials. I’m sure we got a good variety of Democrats and Republicans in here. Typically when our elected leaders come to Nome, there isn’t this question around who’s allowed in and who’s allowed to address you.”
Bahnke questioned the process of addressing the governor through pre-filed index cards. “If you want to have a dialogue, that’s not the way to go about it. That’s not how we do things here in Nome.”
“If you came back we’d like to hear how specifically your proposal affects our region. We heard about some impacts on the University and the marine highway system, but we’d like to hear the impacts on our youth facility and PCE program.
“I also have some comments about the income tax and spending cap. One thing that’s guaranteed is inflation, so I don’t see how putting a spending cap is going to resolve this. I hear that you say you have to budget for your household. As a mother, responsible for the well-being of my children, I get it, but if my income source was declining, I wouldn’t simply put my children up for adoption, saying they’re too expensive. Or shut down the Nome Youth Facility and send them outside. I sure would be looking for more income. I would be looking how to cut expenses to our family, but I wouldn’t put my kids up for adoption. That’s not the solution. Your proposal disproportionately affects rural Alaska. Kawerak works as a partner with the state, on adult basic education; we run a child advocacy center for children who have been sexually abused go to receive services, that’s state funded, we have programs that put people who are on welfare and put them to work and we also offer early childhood education. You campaigned on public safety and your budget proposal to cut VPSO funding does not reflect that. It’s telling me as a mother and a rural resident that public safety is important in urban areas but not necessarily in rural areas.
“Your plan to kick down the road an income tax — people will leave the state if they don’t have an education, if they don’t have public safety.
“This comment is for you, Donna. While you were allowed to speak for a little bit you used the word ‘our.’ And with all due respect, you may have a job for eight years but our descendants – and I’m not just talking about the Alaska Native community here, because we have several non-Native families who have ties in this region that go back over a hundred years and who intend to live here too – we are going to be here for another 10,000 years. So please, don’t use the word ‘our’ when referring to our state’s people or our issues.”
Bahnke again extended her invitation for the governor to come back and “do this the right way.” Mindful that others had something to say, too, she firmly suggested that others be heard. “I encourage you to open this up for other people as well.”
Once she concluded, loud applause erupted and others were allowed to speak.
Dunleavy said he was looking forward to speak with her about some of the issues.
Samuel Johns was next. “There are a group of youth out there,” he said. “Any good man would have asked them if they’re ok, if they’re cold. You didn’t go out there and acknowledge them. They’re the future. They’re gonna remember you not going out to greet them while you were in here hiding.
“You’re acting like a king here now. I said two things and I had two police officers walking toward me, that seems like dictatorship.”
A man sitting in the front row got up and expressed his agreement with the governor’s policies. “I would like to thank you for coming and grateful that you came up to speak to us about your plan.”
Mike Williams, a tribal leader from the Kuskokwim area spoke up. “My people back home, we are very scared.” He spoke of the devastation that cuts to Medicaid and Education would have on his region. “My grandson was just diagnosed with cancer, if Medicaid goes away, he’s dead. There are 30,000 Yupik people that depend on that service,” Williams said.
Once the roadshow was over, the governor and his sponsors walked outside. Nome Beltz high school students were there again to protest the budget cuts and without looking at the students or engaging with them, Dunleavy walked by, biting his lips, and got into a state of Alaska vehicle to be transported to the airport for the evening jet out to Anchorage. One woman exiting Old St. Joe’s gave the kids a ‘thumbs down’ gesture. Donna Arduin sprinted by the protesters, ducking as press cameras clicked away.
As the scene dissolved, Kindergarten teacher Nick Treinen commented, “When the governor walked by he didn’t make eye contact with any of the students and they’re gonna remember that for the rest of their lives, they’re going to remember that the governor walked past them, did not even give them…didn’t look them in the eye.”
One of the protesting students, Daynon Medlin, a senior at Nome-Beltz and an Honor Roll student, said she wanted to let the governor know that education is important. “Its important for our younger siblings and our community and taking away our budget sucks because how we’re going to teach those that are younger than us?”
“Education shows us who we are as people and determines what our future looks like,” she said.
Treinen said that the Nome students are aware how cuts would impact them. “We’re talking about eight teachers from the district on top of pre-k as well as six support staff, so that means a lot to them,” Treinen explained. “It really hit home with them, it’s not just numbers, it’s their experience at school, their teachers that they love and care about.”
As a kindergarten teacher, Treinen can tell how pre-K education influences students. “I could tell from day one which students were in Headstart or Nome Preschool. I could tell by their behavior that the kids had not been to preschool or Headstart, did not know their numbers, their letters, they did not know how to sit down in a circle as a group, they did not know to stay still and that really put them at a disadvantage. It’s not just my own personal experience, there is research to back that up as well that these early childhood programs benefit the students throughout their whole educational career.”
The governor’s roadshow continued in the following days in Fairbanks and Wasilla.
Americans for Prosperity are founded by oil billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch, and the group’s agenda is to lessen regulations to counter climate change, oppose the Affordable Care Act, to lower taxes, shrink government, privatize government services – as already seen in farming out Alaska Psychiatric Institute to a private contractor – and to limit collective bargaining rights to public sector trade unions. According to the AFP website, the goal is “to advance real free-market reforms in the areas of healthcare, taxes and spending, and energy.”