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Less than two weeks after the launch of a campaign to recall him from office, Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced he’s backing off from some of the budget cuts that he demanded after using 182 line item vetos.

The governor's biggest cut was directed at the University of Alaska. In July Dunleavy vetoed $136 million, or 41 percent of the university system budget. Now it will be reduced by almost half that, or $70 million, with the reduction spread out over three years.

Dunleavy is also restoring payments to low-income seniors, funding for early childhood education, money for library Internet services, and funds for the Alaska Legal Services Corporation, with the caveat that funds are to be used to assist victims of sexual assault and domestic violence in civil suits.

For months Dunleavy argued those and other cuts are needed to close a budget gap without using taxes and without reducing an annual dividend paid to Alaskans. Alaska has no statewide sales or income tax, and pays each eligible resident an average of $1,000 to $2,000 per year. The dividends are paid from oil revenues stashed in a $65 billion Permanent Fund.

Throughout the regular legislative session and two special sessions, Alaskans sent emails, made phone calls and attended “Save our State” rallies objecting first to the proposed budget Dunleavy submitted to the legislature, then to his line item vetoes to the budget legislators had approved.

Still, legislators failed to achieve the three-fourths majority needed to override Dunleavy’s vetoes, which totaled $444 million and cut the state budget by 12 percent.

This week, explaining why he restored some of the funding, Dunleavy said the vetoes were “all about having a conversation with Alaskans as to what do we value and ...where do we want to go as a state in the future.” He said he had received feedback about the cuts from parents, agency workers, and legislators. And due to their reactions, he’s softening the blow.

“We listened,” said Dunleavy.

But organizers of Recall Dunleavy said he withstood public outrage over the budget cuts for months and is only changing his tune now due to the success of their campaign to have him removed from office.

Brenda Leask, Tlingit, set up a table to gather signatures at a community gathering in Klawock, on Prince of Wales Island in southeast Alaska.

Brenda Leask, Tlingit, set up a table to gather signatures at a community gathering in Klawock, on Prince of Wales Island in southeast Alaska.

Just two weeks after its launch, the group is quickly nearing a milestone. The group’s chair, Meda DeWitt, Tlingit, said as of Aug. 15, they have collected 29,577 signatures on their recall petition, more than enough to meet the 28,501 required for certification. Still, she said the group will continue to collect signatures through Labor Day, Sept. 2.

“We’re collecting more because there’s always some that are disqualified from the process,” said DeWitt. She said recall organizers also want to give people who want to take a stand against the governor the opportunity to sign the petition.

The majority of signatures gathered so far come from larger towns and cities, but DeWitt said the level of support in rural Alaska, which is predominantly Alaska Native, is notable.

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“In the majority of our small communities that are gathering signatures, we have 80, 90 percent turnout of people who are registered to vote or who voted in the last election,” said DeWitt.

She gives Dunleavy credit for the enthusiastic response.

Recall Dunleavy chair Meda DeWitt, Tlingit. [Photo by Laurence A. Goldin]

Recall Dunleavy chair Meda DeWitt, Tlingit. [Photo by Laurence A. Goldin]

“The fire behind this process is because the cuts that he was going to make would make it almost impossible for some people to live in rural communities,” said DeWitt.

“I think for Alaska Native people, we have come through a process of establishing our communities after healing from colonization and assimilation,” said DeWitt. “We have worked really hard to build up our education system, to build up our healing systems, to build up our community system, to self govern our health systems. And through his cuts, he's endangering decades of effort and work that we've put forward to strengthen our communities and to heal and to become stronger.”

Alaska Native leaders from across the state have been concerned the governor’s actions will set off a slow death of many rural villages. They have said the governor’s cuts to Medicare will lead to job losses and hurt the state’s economy while cuts to an inadequate law enforcement system will make life in rural Alaska even more dangerous. Some said cuts will increase rural Alaska’s already high cost of living and force people to move to urban areas.

Still, the governor may well make those line item vetos again. He plans to sign a final budget Monday Aug. 19.

After Recall Dunleavy submits its petition to the Division of Elections for certification, their next step is to gather the signatures of 71,252 registered voters, or 25 percent of the people who voted in the last election. If those are properly filed, the Division of Elections would then call a special election.

The recall effort was launched on Aug.1 by a bipartisan group including the last surviving delegate to the state Constitutional Convention, a former Republican state senator, and the head of a coal company. They charge the governor with violating the state constitution, neglect of duties, incompetence and unfitness for office.

DeWitt says she joined the effort in honor of her Tlingit ancestors, leaders in the Alaska Native civil rights movement. In an act of civil disobedience in 1922, two were arrested in Wrangell in southeast Alaska for challenging the requirement they prove they were “civilized” in order to vote. DeWitt’s great-great-grandfather Charlie Jones, or Chief Shakes, and her great-great-grandmother Tillie Paul Tamaree took their case to court and won. The votes of hundreds of Alaska Natives, newly enfranchised by the court’s decision, helped elect the first Alaska Native to the Territorial Legislature, DeWitt’s great-great-uncle, William Paul, Sr.

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Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a longtime Alaska journalist. 

Disclaimer: Meda DeWitt is the author’s second cousin.

Cover photo: In western Alaska, Dillingham citizens have gathered hundreds of signatures for the Recall Dunleavy campaign.