The last time I was up in Mayor Ethan Berkowtiz’s penthouse office at City Hall, I watched him look out over his city bubbling with pride and hope for its future, even as it was becoming apparent that in a now three-way race for governor, Republican Mike Dunleavy was a shoo-in for the office.
Last Tuesday I returned for the first time since, and almost all his spirit of optimism was gone, replaced by an indignation so fuming and righteous, he was practically shaking just thinking about the state’s rookie governor and his de-civilizing budget cuts.
Twenty-four hours later, Berkowitz would share that rage publicly as he announced at a press conference, along with members of the Anchorage Assembly, that he was declaring the city to be under a state of civil emergency. Usually, state of emergency declarations are reserved for natural disasters, pandemics and terrorist attacks. The thought that such a need could arise entirely from self-inflicted reasons, an act of economic terrorism hatched by one lightly experienced politician and the ideologically special interests backing him, was almost too much for Berkowtiz to know what to do with.
So I asked him, how surprised were you when the governor came out with his $440 million in vetoes? Did that exceed your expectations?
There was foreshadowing of what he was going to do. He signaled that earlier. We always hoped common sense would intervene and the fact that all of the businesses, organizations and people who have expertise in the consequences of this decision have all laid in against (Dunleavy) would matter. But the fact it doesn’t matter show this is all doctrinaire cutting.
If the municipality had time to make adjustments, we could have, but this was done without warning, without consultation.
If things stand as they are, people will die on account of it and the moral responsibility for that is on the people who instituted the cuts and maintained the cuts.
How will the cuts affect the city’s budget?
Less of it is direct revenue; it’s the assumed cost… It impacts homelessness and increases costs, not just for first responders, but the private sector, too in that you’ll have more (homeless) people on the streets in very visible ways. That’s hugely problematic for hospitals… The loss of UAA, effectively, is a major blow in so many ways, on so many levels. It’s not just the direct loss of jobs, it’s the loss of students, the loss of a generation of people who were supposed to step into their responsibility to help Alaska take care of itself.
Getting rid of the Arts Council makes us the only state without an Arts Council and I’m hearing talk of doctors not taking Medicaid patients because they’re worried they’re not going to be getting paid; that will result in a spiralling health care crisis. Then there’s the secondary and tertiary consequences of people on the margins pushed off their margins. What about seniors using their senior benefits for housing and Medicare? What happens to them? Who takes care of them? How callous do we become?... And all this for what?
Have you been speaking with the police department about public safety in the event of protests and riots?
We are preparing for this as an emergency, a disaster — the consequences are that huge.
We’ve seen dissent teeter on public unrest already. Tempers are frayed; people are scared for justifiable reasons — they don’t know what the future looks like. When you knife the norms, which is what they’ve done; they didn’t just cut, they knifed the norms that hold society together — you can’t be surprised when radicalization occurs.
I’ve been on conversations with the PD and the fire department, particularly when we learned of the projected closure of Brother Francis, as well as some of the other impacted housing. It’s fortunate we have a bigger department than we used to, but this is not a law enforcement problem, fundamentally; this is not a first responder problem; this is about a failure of leadership, a failure to provide a safety net, not just for those in the net, but all of us outside it… The safety net is now the street.
Do you hold out any hope this can be fixed in Juneau before the disaster takes hold?
I know how Juneau works. I know there are tools at people’s disposal down there. There is the ability to cure a lot of the problems they created, but I don’t know they have the ability or the will to do that.
I was the longest serving minority leader in history and a big part of my job was protecting the CBR (Constitutional Budget Reserve), and making sure that was part of the equation. We were always very concerned about overusing that weapon because the consequences are so unforeseeable. But you’ve got a (all-Republican) minority that’s broken so many things. Either they did it deliberately, which is bad enough, or inadvertently, which speaks to their incompetence.
Don’t the governor and the Republicans who stand by him risk immediate political fallout from this?
I hope they pay a political price for it. When you don’t represent all the public, you should pay a political price. This is emblematic of what’s happening in our country now. When you get elected, your obligation is not just to your donors or the people who voted for your; your obligation is to all of the people. This idea of only serving the very few who elected you makes our society incredibly brittle, and when things are brittle, things will break; thing will fray.
This doesn’t make America great — it makes America weak.
What are your thoughts on the PFD in the midst of all this?
I don’t know any company that will pay a dividend when they’re not having a good year, so the idea of the dividend as an entitlement is insane to me. People are just saying what their price is. To me, that’s way too cheap. In reality, the biggest beneficiary of the PFD, if you think about it in total, is Uncle Sam. Of the total amount, a quarter or it is taxed away, another quarter is garnished with debts, fines, child support — some of it goes to good purposes — but this is not all money flowing where it needs to go. I think it’s just a price; people are saying what their price is.
Were there any prophecies that this is what the PFD would turn into?
People did before the PFD — look at (the nation’s) founders. They said one of the greatest dangers is when people find out they can vote themselves the treasury. De Tocqueville, in Democracy in America, said essentially the same thing.
(Gov. Jay) Hammond was concerned; everyone who watched was concerned. My measure, as an Alaskan is not the size of my dividend, and if your measure of your Alaskan-ness is your dividend, then we have vastly different concepts of what it means to be here.
But didn’t they allow it to become an electoral trap-door when you have families with 5 or 6 kids able to earn almost a full-time wage on the PFD alone?
There’s a lot of great things the PFD has done. We have one of the flattest income distributions of any state in the union. Incredibly, the irony is that the same people who complain about guaranteed minimum income are insisting on their dividend. The intellectual inconsistency and raw hypocrisy of that is astounding.
When you look out your office window now are you still hopeful about Anchorage’s future?
I still see the promise and possibility of Alaska, but I also see deep divisions that have been engineered by somewhat sinister forces (Koch Brothers and others)... When you significantly downsize and disable government, who benefits? At a certain point, the state is going to get rid of its assets and resources. Who’s going to acquire that?
Surely big companies with big investments in Alaska, like ConocoPhillips and BP, don’t want the state to fall apart, do they?
You’d have to ask them; they haven’t stepped up and said anything. But when the state makes the decision of honoring oil tax credits but not honoring our bond debt reimbursement — both of which are essentially handshake deals — tells me they value their corporate citizens more than their taxpaying residents and that, to me, is astounding.
So who benefits from these cuts?
There are corporations and businesses that are poised to make a lot of money as Alaska becomes available for fire sale prices. Look, we grew up as a colony, we were starting to become more self-sufficient and more able to exercise self-determination, but our ability to do that has been undercut severely. We are weakened by this.
What do you make of the efforts underway to recall the governor. Do you support that? Is it feasible?
I think it’s a strong political statement expressing extreme distaste for what’s occurred. When you have elected leadership that disrespects huge swaths of constituencies, don’t be surprised when the constituency bites back.
Has this affected your political plans after your term as mayor is up?
My immediate challenge is making sure we get through this crisis. Others have talked about it, but I’m focused on the immediate at this time.
What’s your prediction for what’s going to happen by this fall?
We’re in a broken world right now. It’s hard to see how the pieces come back together. There’s no real achievement in a fragmented Alaska. All the great things this state has done, we’ve done together, whether it’s the pipeline, the Permanent Fund or the Constitution — that was all done when the state came together. We used to be able to disagree and still socialize together.
If Alaska comes to its senses in 2020 and sends the right people to Juneau, would it be possible to put Humpty Dumpty back together again?
I think parts of it will be broken for a generation because the message gets conveyed that if it can be broken once, it can be broken twice. If the fuses don’t break when their supposed to break, you short circuit, you’ve fried the system and they have fried the system.
What message do you have for the people of Anchorage as they struggle through this?
We need to be the people we’re supposed to be — set the example for the state; be the best we can for people in our society. We’ll have opportunities for people who want to achieve things and we’ll make Anchorage as attractive a place as it can possibly be, but I want to remind everybody that this is Anchorage, Alaska and we are all part of this state. I will continue to stand up and fight for the Alaska I know and I believe in. I’ve been fortunate to know a lot of the people who built this state and they would be shocked at what has become of us.