Note: This was initially published in the Anchorage Daily News.
Last November, we were reminded of something that offers us great hope about the future of our state.
In the aftermath of the earthquake last November, we saw Alaskans at their best — neighbors helping neighbors; Alaskans supporting and comforting each other. We saw people rolling up their sleeves, ready to help, whatever the need might be.
For a few days, your political affiliation didn’t matter. Divisiveness was superseded by the shared experience we’d just gone through and our drive as Alaskans to overcome yet another challenge.
Let’s channel that same positive spirit as we address Alaska’s fiscal situation.
When Rasmuson Foundation was created in 1955, its permanent endowment was set up to grow along with our state. It was established to promote the tradition of Alaskans helping other Alaskans. Since then, Rasmuson Foundation has invested more than $400 million in this state, on hospitals and clinics, libraries and museums, senior centers, parks, food banks, domestic violence shelters, treatment centers and more. For each one of the thousands of projects we have invested in over the decades, we have had a partner in Alaska’s nonprofit community. We believe nonprofits are the social fabric behind a strong community, doing critical community work better, with greater innovation, and often more efficiently than if it were left to government alone. Nonprofits are connected to the people they serve and know and understand their needs.
Since Gov. Mike Dunleavy released his proposed budget, we have been talking with nonprofits across Alaska about the impact $1.6 billion in cuts will have on their work and on the Alaskans they serve. We are deeply concerned. Here is some of what we’ve learned:
The governor’s budget eliminates 90% of funding to housing and homelessness programs across the state. According to the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness, these programs served 10,934 people in 2018. Brother Francis Shelter, operated by Anchorage-based Catholic Social Services, housed 240 persons a night on average in 2018. If the cuts are implemented as proposed, the organization will be forced to reduce shelter hours and decrease the number of people served. This will result in 140 more people per night unsheltered on the streets of Anchorage. Where will they go? Our parks? Green spaces? How many people who simply needed a one-time boost as a result of a dramatic life event will no longer receive assistance and risk falling into an even deeper spiral?
The proposed cuts eliminate all state funding for Alaska Legal Services, a nonprofit law firm that has offered free civil legal services to low income and disadvantaged people since 1967. In 2018, the organization provided services to 7,400 Alaskans in 197 communities. Without state funding, an estimated 2,809 Alaskans will have nowhere to go for legal services including our highly vulnerable population of seniors, individuals with disabilities, domestic violence victims, veterans and victims of crime.
The proposed budget not only eliminates all state funding for the Alaska State Council on the Arts, it also removes authority for the state to receive private money from Rasmuson Foundation and others to support the council and its programming, such as bringing artists into schools. Why? What message does that send to our students about the arts? What message does it send to Alaska artists?
Facing unsustainable deficits, Gov. Dunleavy took office with a promise to balance the budget. It’s something that must be done. As an organization rooted in banking, we understand the importance of having your financial house in order. But the abruptness and magnitude of the $1.6 billion in proposed cuts unduly burdens Alaska’s most vulnerable citizens and will leave communities across the state with significant service needs. Moreover, making reductions of this size over such a short period of time will make it impossible to address these gaps.
Rasmuson Foundation was created to benefit Alaska forever, using 5% of its assets each year to benefit Alaskans. Many of our investments — in housing, domestic violence, libraries and clinics — have been accomplished through a beneficial partnership with our state government. The state is our most important partner. So, we care deeply about the current budget discussion.
Over the next few days and weeks, we will share more information quantifying the impact these significant and dramatic cuts would have on our quality of life. We believe Alaska needs a thoughtful approach to a sustainable budget, a strategy that balances the financial reality of living within our means, without sacrificing the things that make our state a great place to live.
As we were reminded last year, we are at our best when we are working together. And when the ground around us is shaking, we need each other. Let’s harness our collective power to overcome our fiscal challenge. And let’s find a solution we can all live with. Rasmuson Foundation does not claim to have all the answers, but as an organization established to serve Alaska in perpetuity, there is no way we could stay out of the conversation. Please join us at the table.
Ed Rasmuson is a lifelong Alaskan, retired banker and chairman of the board of the Rasmuson Foundation.