At Anchorage hearing, Alaskans protest Dunleavy budget proposal, advocate for income tax

More than 250 Alaskans filled the auditorium at East High School Saturday afternoon to meet with state lawmakers and give feedback on Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s budget proposal — a proposal that includes more than $1.5 billion in cuts to services including education, healthcare and the Alaska Marine Highway System.

More than four dozen people testified at the hearing. Many wore red to protest cuts to education funding. Others wore blue stickers reading “Save Healthcare.” Some wore pins reading “Supportive Housing Works.” All but two who spoke rejected the governor’s proposed spending plan.

The majority of testifiers urged their representatives to consider new revenue sources. Jan MacClarence, a Pioneer Home resident, was one of the many who asked lawmakers to consider an income tax.

“I need services, I’m willing to pay for services; this is my home, I’ve chosen to retire here,” she said. “Tax me, and let me help pay.”

Anchorage legislators gather in the auditorium at East High School to hear testimony from constituents on March 2, 2019. (Photo by Kirsten Swann/Alaska Public Media)

For an hour and a half, lawmakers heard testimony from a diverse range of Alaskans: students, teachers, retirees and parents deciding whether to raise families in Alaska. Most spoke out against proposed cuts to K-12 education funding. Many asked lawmakers to defend Alaska’s participation in the WWAMI Regional Medical Education Program, which allows Alaska students to pursue medical education despite the state’s lack of a medical school. Many expressed concern about the proposed budget’s negative implications for Alaska’s economic future. Some spoke about the personal impact of proposed cuts to social service funding.

Anchorage resident Carl Jacobs told lawmakers about the foster children he and his wife have helped raise, and the ways they depend on an array of state services, from public schools to Medicaid to the ferry system. Like many of the people who spoke Saturday, he told lawmakers he supported funding state services over paying large Permanent Fund Dividends.

“I’m a member of what I believe to be the majority of Alaskans who support a responsibly and reasonably reduced dividend to help fund important state services that the most vulnerable Alaskans depend on,” Jacobs said.

Even the few Alaskans who spoke in support of Dunleavy’s effort to reduce state spending didn’t support the entire proposal. Kris Warren, who testified in support of the proposed budget cuts, decried a separate plan to pay back PFD money cut over the past few years.

“This is my one disagreement with Gov. Dunleavy,” Warren said. “The idea we should continue to pay that out — billions of unearned dollars to each Alaskan when our revenues are going to decline — is beyond absurd.”

Sixteen Anchorage senators and representatives, Republicans and Democrats, sat assembled before the audience, listening to the public testimony from behind tables set up on the auditorium stage. Afterwards, they gathered in classrooms organized by district to answer questions and hear more feedback from constituents.

Sen. Tom Begich, a Democrat from Anchorage, said the testimony helped strengthen his opposition to the governor’s budget proposal.

“You know, there were 50 people who spoke in favor of getting rid of this budget. There were two who didn’t,” he said. “That’s a pretty significant difference.”

Rep. Sharon Jackson, a Republican representing Eagle River, said it’s important to her to listen to all concerns. She said she was happy for the chance to hear from so many Alaskans.

“I think we need to talk less, listen more, and then take the action the people are asking,” she said.