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Alaska Legislature: A source of some concern

Scott Woodham

TO: The 27th Alaska Legislature
SUBJECT: Time, linear and finite

Dear Alaska Legislature,

Welcome back! Your 27th Opening Day is a fond memory now, and Gov. Sean Parnell has given his State of the State address. Over the next 90 days or so, you have a chance to chart the course of our state for the next few decades. We don't envy the decisions you'll have to make, but we couldn't be more concerned.

The big topics this session are, of course, various oil and gas projects and tax rates, voting laws, and a few kinds of economic development, but other bills pose more of a concern to us right now. We're worried that several bills don't seem like the best use of your time -- which, as you and your aides know, is rather short, thanks to voters.

We're concerned that minor issues are taking too much time, however little, away from your efforts to address the elephants in Alaska's room. We know you're trying your best, but many of the big-ticket bills addressing things like domestic violence, education, petroleum taxes, and energy were filed at the request of the governor. We're not sure if you know this, but Gov. Parnell isn't a state senator anymore.

If he were, it would be silly for him to introduce a bill "Commending and supporting the aggressive actions of (himself) to protect the state from federal government incursion into the care and management of state resources and to promote the economic prosperity of the state." The bill ends "urging" the U.S. president and Congress to limit federal powers to constitutionally enumerated ones, and furthermore to trust and empower you to manage Alaska's affairs.

It seems to us that every other month or so the governor's making a statement to that very effect. We haven't noticed they've done much even if we have admired the courage they take. Your members could do the same thing individually, of course, but maybe it sounds more serious if you pass a bill saying so. Either way, we're very concerned that the same effect thus far could be achieved by calling a press conference to witness an elected state official letting the air out of a large balloon slowly enough that it squeaks, then flaps.

We also think that the motivation for a similar bill "urging" the feds to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's coastal plain to oil and gas exploration would be better served by the balloon strategy.

We're also concerned because Congress and the executive branch aren't the best judges of what's constitutional and what's not, and there's another branch of the federal government that handles those questions.

We thought maybe the name of that branch was slipping our minds because none of us had to take a class and pass an exam in "American constitutionalism" to graduate high school, as another newly introduced bill would require.

We hadn't heard of that particular "-ism" before, and from what we can tell, "constitutionalism" refers not to the process the founders went through to create a replacement for the doomed Articles of Confederation. It refers instead to a rather politicized argument that can arise after a country has a constitution, an argument which seems to be resurrecting itself in post-adolescent American political life these days. We're concerned because Alaska's schools are having enough trouble paying for and graduating students without being forced to create an entirely new class, one with such veiled ideological underpinnings.

There are also bills that mean little when looked at closely, but which you'll have to spend time on anyway.

The first one is a bill that prescribes in excruciating detail how to handle Alaska's flag for presentation, how public ceremonies should be conducted, and under what circumstances and in what manner it can be retired. The bill is peppered with out-clauses like "when practicable" and "whenever possible," and even allows disposal methods besides a respectful pyre. So we're concerned it still won't do anything to keep our unintentionally impudent neighbors from hanging the Alaska flag horizontally with the North Star on the left-hand side or retiring old flags to the trash can without much reverence.

There's also a self-moot House bill proposing to allow the governor to remove or suspend a member of the University of Alaska Board of Regents. According to the bill's summary, the framers of the Alaska Constitution meant to "insulate" the University Regents from political machinations, but they didn't mean to make the Regents immune from "nonpolitical legislative and executive branch oversight." We're concerned because there is no such thing. Because the bill also requires that its own provisions be enacted in a way that preserves that insulation at the same time they reduce it, the bill is a pile of tough-sounding contradictions.

With news this week of various school districts scrambling to find ways to cut student services and programs to balance budgets, we're concerned about the apparent lack of funding and solutions proposed this session to give Alaska's young people a fighting chance to compete in what promises to be a demanding future.

We also notice a distinct lack of bills that address the state retirement system's debt trouble. But at least the session's not a total loss for people who have served the state. There's a new bill that would guarantee that Tier 1 retirees' medical insurance covers colorectal screening, a benefit that until now has only been informally granted to the most recent retirement tiers, under the table of course.

There are other problems we notice not getting addressed, and other bills we're concerned are too minor for your attention, but rather than keep piling on you about fancy license plates, we'll just leave it at that.

At any rate, addressing with efficiency and courage the serious social and economic problems facing Alaska would probably go a long way toward convincing the feds to let Alaska have more control over its affairs. If, that is, you're still interested in having such a big responsibility.

Clock's Ticking,
The Concerned