A commitment to a more collaborative budget-making process and protecting the program that subsidizes power costs in rural Alaska were maybe the second and third most memorable parts of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s Thursday morning speech.
Protests and subsequent rebukes from Alaska Native leaders made an impression during the governor’s address to the Alaska Federation of Natives annual convention.
While addressing the Alaska Federation of Natives, audible protests and drumming could be heard competing with Dunleavy’s words in the live broadcasts, and social media posts indicated many in attendance stood with their fists held in the air.
Defend the Sacred Alaska, a movement meant to assert indigenous rights to public office holders, said in an email members of the movement unfurled a banner reading, “Recall is #GoodGovernment #TriballyLed #DefendTheSacredAK.”
“Good Government, Alaskan Driven” is the theme of this year’s AFN convention.
Defend the Sacred Alaska contacts did not immediately return calls seeking comment.
Dunleavy did not personally address the protesters, which included Grammy Award-winners Portugal. The Man, but AFN co-chair Will Mayo cut into the governor’s speech to ask the crowd to quiet down.
Portugal. The Man joins audience members at the Alaska Federation of Natives and protests #Alaska Governor Dunleavy during his opening remarks. #afn2019 @portugaltheman #akleg #akgov pic.twitter.com/z6NQIzA2zH— Steph Quinn-Davidson (@SalmonStephAK) October 17, 2019
“I can’t agree with this,” Mayo said. “We have different views, we may approach things differently, but we have a man here who is in a seat of authority, and there are ways that we can express our differences.”
Mayo encouraged those in attendance to express themselves by voting or in ways that don’t drown out the governor’s message.
“We are not here to attack you,” Mayo said to Dunleavy. “We would like to ask you to continue your address and know that you have the protection of the Alaska Native community in this house. You are our guest.”
Dunleavy resumed his speech without comment.
After the governor finished speaking, Victor Joseph, Chief/Chairman, Tanana Chiefs Conference and AFN Board Member, and Aaron Schutt, President and CEO, Doyon, Limited, both scolded protesters.
“We have the responsibility to treat everybody the way that the Interior would treat people, and that is with respect,” Joseph said.
The actual substance of Dunleavy’s speech was a blend of re-commitment to long-championed causes such as public safety and assurances that he has heard Alaskans’ displeasure with this year’s budget-making process, and he will govern accordingly.
“We will listen to your input as we go through this process,” Dunleavy said. “We all know the budget discussions were very difficult and at times contentious this past year. I will be the first to say as governor, I must take responsibility for my part in this process.”
This year, the budget process featured a late June unveiling of line item vetoes that drew protests and led to two subsequent special sessions of the Legislature that memorably featured debate about where the Legislature should convene. Many of the cuts were later restored in the Legislature-approved capital budget.
“I will work to ensure the budget process goes much more smoothly this year,” Dunleavy said.
Additionally, he said he would work with state lawmakers to provide long-term protections for the Power Cost Equalization fund, which helps offset the high cost of power in rural Alaska.
Earlier this year, the fund seemed to be threatened by a bookkeeping quirk known as “The Sweep.”
“A legitimate concern was raised about the long-term protection of the PCE endowment,” Dunleavy said.
Protecting PCE funding was among the parts of the governor’s address that drew a positive response from the at-times unfriendly audience.
Some of the governor’s commitments to public safety also went over well.
During his speech, Dunleavy said Alaska State Troopers will continue to hire troopers with rural Alaska specifically in mind and also said solving cold cases and working through the state’s backlog of sexual assault kits are priorities.
“All backlogged sexual assault kits, including those collected decades ago are scheduled to processed no later than September 2021,” Dunleavy said.
He said a prosecutor and investigator dedicated to cold cases have also been hired.
“Justice should be swift, families should not have to wait decades for answers,” Dunleavy said.
Some of the loudest applause was reserved for a pledge to provide funding for vacant Village Public Safety Officer positions. The VPSO program trains and employs people who live in villages to serve as first responders.
Dunleavy’s budget vetoes from late June included $3 million in cuts to the program in light of its vacancies. That funding was later restored as part of the Legislature-approved capital budget.
“We will also continue to support the VPSO program,” Dunleavy said. “We will have funding available in the budget to fund every vacant position that an employer needs to fill in this program, and we will continue to work with stakeholder groups to continually improve our public safety outcomes in rural Alaska.”
• Contact reporter Ben Hohenstatt at (907)523-2243 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt.