story by Katie Kazmierski and Emily Hofstaedter
Governor Mike Dunleavy was in Nome Wednesday to discuss his budget presentation with the public at Old St. Joe’s meeting hall.
The sponsor and co-presenter of Dunleavy’s public discussion — the conservative political advocacy group Americans For Prosperity — made the budget forum controversial even before it began.
The forum was open to the public without prior registration or a signed waiver, but that was only announced moments before the meeting — a last-minute reversal of prior statements from AFP that attendees would have to register.
Over the course of half an hour, the crowd of protesters outside of Old St. Joe swelled to well over one hundred people. Many of them bore signs criticizing Governor Dunleavy’s participation in an event that was privately funded.
When Maureen “Mo” Koezuna heard that Americans For Prosperity was backing the event and that they would be requiring attendees to sign a waiver prior to admission, she took to social media to see if others were interested in a rally.
“We have an elected governor that’s for all of us. Not just for Americans For Prosperity.”
Koezuna began organizing Nome’s rally before she knew of the other “Save Our State” rallies, but then adopted the name in solidarity.
Once citizens confirmed with AFP organizers that they would be admitted without a waiver or registration, most left the protest to attend the event and hear what the governor had to say. The change in event policy was not announced before the event nor through local media organizations.
“We just want an open forum. We just want people to get answers. We want people to ask hard questions of us and the governor.”
John Rich is a spokesman for AFP and said that, initially, AFP wanted to have the right to remove disruptive people. Ultimately, everyone was allowed inside providing they did not hold up signs or interrupt the presentation.
Inside the doors of Old St. Joe’s, around 100 attendees listened as Governor Dunleavy addressed the crowd on his three proposed constitutional amendments.
“We’re suggesting that we hem ourselves in so that we can’t spend more than 2.5 percent a year moving forward. If we do that, there’s also a savings rule embedded in that constitutional amendment which will be coming to more money for more oil, because if we get our fiscal house in order, we’ll get more investment in the state of Alaska. We can save that money…”
After he spoke, the floor was opened to public comments and questions: but at first, only those written on index cards and submitted to an AFP representative would be accepted. But not all attendees were satisfied with that format. Kawerak President Melanie Bahnke sat quietly with her hand raised until community members called on the governor to acknowledge her. But Bahnke was not permitted to address the governor directly until after all written questions were answered.
“I’d like to invite you back, and Kawerak would actually fund your travel… because of the group that’s sponsoring your trip and is hosting this visit, there was some confusion about whether or not we had to agree to have our rights or use of our image be signed away.”
Dunleavy thanked Bahnke for her comments and agreed he’d be in touch with her about her offer of funding a possible second trip to Nome.
From there, the floor was opened to other citizens’ comments. Among the biggest concerns at the forum were cuts to education, Medicaid, and public safety. In response to a question on why he is proposing cuts to public safety, likely referring to cuts to the VPSO program, Dunleavy asserted that the administration plans to ‘beef up’ public safety.
“Public safety is job number 1 for this administration once we get this budget taken care of… We actually plan on doing all that we can to hire more troopers… We have to look at how we can recruit and retain troopers… We’re gonna continue to work with corrections; we’re putting into place programs for folks to get off of opiates. There’s a whole host of things we’re doing to improve the public safety outcomes of Alaska.”
Most were critical of the governor and his budget proposal at large. Nome’s Sue Steinacher mentioned that rural Alaska already receives disproportional funding.
“There will be a disproportional impact; you will see deaths out here unless you recognize we’re already (in) a crisis. So, if you do make cuts, make it so we come in with some sort of balance.”
Education was continually brought up with concern. And there to speak on it were twenty students from Nome-Beltz High School. They were concerned that budget cuts could cause their teachers to lose jobs or that extracurriculars could be eliminated. Amber Gray is a senior at NBHS:
“I still want the future of my school in good hands. Once I leave, I want to have faith that my cousins who are still in school are getting the education in school that I got.”
Governor Dunleavy reiterated throughout the event that budget cuts to schools give schools the opportunity to restructure their budgets at the local level.
Dunleavy’s “roadshow” continues next in Fairbanks and the Mat-Su area.
Image at top: Referring to the involvement of the private political advocacy organization Americans For Prosperity, one Nome protester held a sign on Wednesday calling for the governor to “come back for a true public meeting.” Photo: Emily Hofstaedter, KNOM.