AD Main Menu

Alaska lawmakers can learn lesson from great tennis match of 2013

Dermot Cole

FAIRBANKS -- If anything good comes out of the endless Anchorage tennis match of 2013, it will be that Alaskans will recognize the flaws in the process legislators use to bestow millions on those they favor.

But most of our legislators, comfortable with the status quo, refuse to recognize the obvious.

That the leaders of the largest city in Alaska wasted many hours arguing for six months about tennis courts -- when more pressing issues deserved attention -- demonstrates the need for reform.

When I first wrote that money placed in the state budget for “deferred and critical maintenance” on facilities from the 1980s should not be used for new construction, the experts said that I didn’t understand the process and the fault was with me.

I have to admit that’s true. I don’t understand how anyone can defend this sorry excuse for a process.

The capital budget approved by the Legislature and signed by the governor does not mention tennis courts. By all rights, the money ought to be spent to fix public facilities in Anchorage built during the 1980s, which is what the budget says.

But the experts say a document released by the Legislature two months after the budget was approved provides legal cover for the tennis plan.

All of this could have been avoided if the Legislature had rules encouraging discipline, responsibility and accountability. This is an institutional failing, not a personal one, as members of both parties have inherited bad habits from their predecessors and accepted them as infallible doctrine.

With the state running multibillion-dollar deficits, an institutional change is overdue. When legislators return to Juneau next month, they should adopt rules committing to release all budget information to the public before they vote on the budget, leaving enough time for public hearings.

As it is now, backup budget documents are treated as private information by the leaders of the finance committees and not available to the public until it's too late. The impulse for secrecy, driven by political strategy, creates bad public policy.

Last spring, after the Legislature approved the budget, I asked the Legislative Finance Division for backup material on several capital budget projects in the Fairbanks area. The response from Juneau was that the information was not yet public.

The reason for the tennis tangle is that lawmakers kept key information secret and voted on the capital budget, as is the standard practice, when almost no one in Alaska knew what was in it. The confusion could have been avoided.

The backup document on the tennis court money was dated May 9, 2013 at 2:01 p.m., three weeks after the Legislature adjourned. The backup documents justifying projects included in the budget in April were released to the public June 10.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Contact Dermot Cole at dermot(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcole.