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Mental health, marijuana policy and HAARP: Issues for the 28th Alaska Legislature

Alaska Dispatch staff

Editor's Note: The following list was compiled by Alaska Dispatch staff in response to a simple question: What might lawmakers focus on alongside oil taxes? For more on the list and why we think it important, read Thinking beyond the oil patchlinked below. You'll also find more issues the 28th Alaska Legislature might consider here.

 

Any moron can spend; can Alaska lawmakers cut back?

While lawmakers will certainly be spending much of their time during this year’s session debating how to boost revenue by encouraging oil and gas production, there’s another question they should ask themselves: Where to cut?

Many state legislators have been pounding the drum that oil production provides the vast majority of state revenue, and with that production in decline, so too is the amount of money that flows into state coffers. On the national level, the debate over the budget has been how to boost revenue while simultaneously cutting spending.

But the latter half of that national debate has been largely ignored in Alaska. Gov. Sean Parnell has requested a state budget of $12.8 billion for 2014, after a 2013 proposal of $12.1 billion. At the budget announcement, Parnell called the plan “responsible and responsive.”

Meantime, a new report from Alaska’s Legislative Finance Division says that in order to balance the budget this year, oil must hover around $105. The Department of Revenue says that oil is expected to average $109.61 per barrel in Fiscal Year 2014, but that’s cutting it awfully close when declining production numbers are taken into account and some analysts say the world may see a glut soon.

The report says that lawmakers are facing a $410 million deficit for the 2013 fiscal year, which ends July 1, 2013. Such a deficit is a new situation for any lawmakers first elected after 2005.

“There will be no debating ‘spend versus save’ during deliberation of the FY13 supplemental budget; there is likely to be a withdrawal from savings to fill the FY13 budget gap,” the report says.

At the national level, raising taxes is usually considered the territory of Democrats, while spending cuts are typically associated with Republicans. But in Alaska’s Republican-dominated majority, will anyone step forward and propose tough cuts to state programs in the face of a yawning budget deficit?

That would seem even more essential in Alaska, where some lawmakers hope to provide a big tax cut for oil producers. That might boost revenue in the long run but would be several surplus-sucking years away without any additional tax increases to offset short-term revenue losses.

The problem -- nationally and locally -- is that spending cuts are politically volatile propositions. Where to cut? As soon as lawmakers begin proposing cuts to the transportation budget, education, environmental conservation, or wildlife management -- the public outcry would come fast and furious.

In this case, it’s up to Alaskans just as much as the Legislature to decide how much of a hit they’re willing to take. 

-- Ben Anderson

Stem state spending | Prioritize mental health | Regulate marijuana | Takeover HAARP | Thinking beyond the oil patch

A sane approach to children's mental health care

Alaska legislators who think they're competent now should put themselves through the task of attempting to find appropriate mental health care for a child in crisis, then see how sane they are at the end of the ordeal. Despite gains made under “Bring the Kids Home” – a reform agenda meant to keep children in state for care rather than shipping them off somewhere in the Lower 48 – a lot of work remains to be done to adequately care for children suffering with mental illness and the families who love and support them. This recommendation comes from two parents who last year suffered through the hoops and failures of a still broken system, ultimately opting to self-pay for care out of state in order to place our severely depressed, suicidal son at the facility most appropriate for his needs.

To this day outrage swells when I recount our maddening struggles to fight for our son. Sadness washes over when I realize the pain he lingered under. And, a nagging sense of injustice won't go away. Our family was fortunate to be able to buy our son's way into decent care. I am grateful for this. But what about the families that don't have that luxury? Or the time to research facilities and conduct on site visits before making a placement decision? If we – a reporter and public health doctor, both fierce advocates for our family – ran into obstacles, what of those families who can't, won't or don't navigate the system as well? Or who can't afford options?

The mental health system we desperately needed and had no choice but to engage left us believing things must change. One size does not fit all. Children may have one diagnosis or many, learning disorders or other disabilities or gifts, stable homes or ones that are part of the problem, drugs and alcohol dependence or other forms of self harm, a history of being abused or as abusers themselves. They all deserve a safe, capable system that is responsive to their individual needs.

Based on our experience, below is a short list of items the Alaska Legislature should take on (Truthfully, this list could and should be much longer):

1. Don't assume in-state care is better than out-of-state care, or that funding for in-state care should be the priority. The priority should be adequate, competent care that addresses both the child and the family's needs.

 When a child hurts and suffers, the whole family hurts and suffers. We often felt cut off from our son and ostracized by psychiatrists that were running the show. We had to fight to be kept appraised of his health and the next steps forward. We had to go through a procedural dance of foreseeable rejections from in-state facilities we knew could not meet our son's needs, but which had to occur before Medicaid would kick in for an out of state placement at facilities we were ultimately not OK with.

2. Alaska needs more long-term care options and therapeutic group homes. 

 Many facilities in Southcentral Alaska can manage acute care -- placements of a few weeks to keep a kid safe and get them stable -- but few are equipped to house and manage a child for months, a year, or even longer to aid in long term, substantial recovery. Not all children can safely live at home while this longer term intervention is taking place.

3. Rethink what out-of-state facilities you will allow Medicaid to reimburse. We found the intent of a requirement to keep treatment centers small incongruous with reality.

 The facilities Alaska Medicaid would fund were large hospital-affiliated conglomerates that got away with a "small treatment setting" claim because they had wings dedicated to children's care. Meanwhile, we found smaller treatments facilities that housed children in smaller dorms and cabins that didn't qualify because, they told us, they were considered too large of a facility. These smaller campuses were, in our estimation, much more hands-on and humane settings, less institutional feeling but still offering intense counseling, medication, if needed, and academics.

-- Jill Burke

Stem state spending | Prioritize mental health | Regulate marijuana | Takeover HAARP | Thinking beyond the oil patch

Decriminalize marijuana, one of Alaska's cash crops

The year 2012 marked the 40th anniversary of findings by the federal government's National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse that, contrary to the Reefer Madness campaign of the 1930s, pot was not making folks go crazy. The commission's 1972 report to Congress recommended that the personal use of marijuana should be decriminalized and that Americans should be able to cultivate and share cannabis in small amounts.

In the next decade, several states, including Alaska, legalized small amounts of cannabis possession. After that, states including Alaska began to legalize marijuana for medicinal use. Twenty years later, states have begun to decriminalize marijuana. Washington and Colorado voters made history on Nov. 6, 2012, choosing to regulate pot -- to tax it and raise revenue from its cultivation and use – while rejecting antiquated notions that condemn pot as some gateway to immoral behavior.

Pot could be a cash crop for Alaska, too, if the Legislature would take action. Lawmakers could raise revenue for the state at a time when the budget is bleeding and lawmakers are dithering over how much money to give oil companies to encourage further exploration.

Alaskans will soon be given the opportunity to pass a ballot measure that decriminalizes marijuana in the Great Land. Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, recently announced that his group planned to target Alaska as the next state that should decriminalize marijuana. Within three years, he hopes to do that at the federal level.

The initiative, according to this article, will likely appear on the 2014 primary election ballot. The Marijuana Policy Project takes pot reform seriously: it’s the group behind Colorado's successful initiative and they see pot as a solution to the social ills of alcoholism.

“We spent eight years educating Colorado about marijuana,” said Steve Fox, the project's director of government relations and a key organizer in the Colorado ballot initiative. “Voters concluded marijuana was less harmful than alcohol, for example. Marijuana is safer. It makes no sense to steer people toward a substance that makes people violent.”

That’s an argument that could catch on in Alaska, where domestic violence and assault rates are among the highest in the country.

Fox made it clear that his group had no interest in just swooping into Alaska and pushing for legislation to liberalize drug laws. The Marijuana Policy Project would work with local organizers to build a grassroots campaign to pass a ballot measure to tax and regulate cannabis just like cigarettes or alcohol, he said.

Imagine the revenue potential: Alaskans are notorious in their love of growing and selling pot. More than 26,000 pounds of marijuana was farmed in the A-K last year, with a street value of more than $205 million, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. Taxing and regulating that much product -- possibly more if exports are permitted -- could bring revenue at a time when Alaska needs roads, public safety and new schools as oil revenues are dropping.

Fox said his group would focus on educating voters, not lawmakers, who have had decades to write meaningful marijuana reform laws but have chosen instead to criminalize pot smokers, a process that ultimately costs the state hundreds of millions of dollars in prosecutions and prisons.

But the group's Alaska campaign is still in its "exploration stages," Fox said. And that gives lawmakers a window of opportunity. As the 28th Legislature gets under way, representatives and senators new to Juneau can go bold, and offer a solution to the revenue shortfall -- one that doesn't touch the Alaska Permanent Fund or create an income tax -- without giving away too much in the form of tax cuts for oil production.

Don't bet your bag that pot will land among this two-year Legislature's priorities, unless a vocal majority assembles to demand it. With one law, the Alaska Legislature can give the state a new resource to export, generate new income for dwindling state coffers and do something to stem the swelling prison population.

The Marijuana Policy Project does ask voters who support decriminalizing marijuana to lobby their lawmakers. More information is available at the group's website. Other states along with Alaska that are a part of the 2016 strategy include Rhode Island, Maine, Oregon, California, Massachusetts and Nevada.

-- Eric Christopher Adams

Stem state spending | Prioritize mental health | Regulate marijuana | Takeover HAARP | Thinking beyond the oil patch

Alaska lawmakers should takeover HAARP

Forget improving weather forecasting. Maybe it’s time for Alaska to go big and actually learn to control the weather. There’s a lot to be gained, and the time may be right to strike. Not only did Alaska experience a cooling trend in the first decade of the new millennium, but this past weekend brought unseasonably warm temperatures to much of the state, turning roads into ice rinks. And that’s without even mentioning the wind storms and Arctic hurricanes. Constituents are fed up, meaning the public might have lawmakers' backs if they decide to go through with it.

And Alaska may have the right tools.

After all, conspiracy theorists have for years suggested that the High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) array may harness hidden, nefarious weather-controlling characteristics. Maybe it’s time for Alaska lawmakers to take that surplus and throw money at the massive antenna farm in hopes of proving those conspiracy theorists right.

Think of the benefits! Girdwood could be covered in snow year-round, allowing for immaculate skiing conditions. Weeks of rainfall won’t flood villages and knock out their water supplies. Nasty Gulf of Alaska storms won’t snap towlines to multimillion-dollar drill rigs and raise big questions about Arctic offshore drilling.

Such a project is sure to generate some publicity. It would be a throwback to the days when Alaska used to dream big, with plans for domed cities and the devil-may-care attitude that allowed a fleet of bulldozers to plow a road to the North Slope.

Sure, maybe it’s a little unrealistic, but it seems like a natural-gas pipeline is just as mythical at this point. And if HAARP doesn’t work out, we could always go on a search for that mysterious “Dark Pyramid” that’s supposedly buried somewhere in the Alaska wilderness.

-- Ben Anderson

Stem state spending | Prioritize mental health | Regulate marijuana | Takeover HAARP | Thinking beyond the oil patch

 

Think outside the oil patch and diversify Alaska's economy

Once more the Alaska lawmakers are headed to Juneau to talk oil taxes because they have no alternative. Oil dollars lubricate the machinery of government in the 49th state. Without multibillion dollar oil revenues, the engine seizes, and the state as we know it shuts down.

Alaska isn't going to get beyond this reality any time soon. But we are past the time to start thinking and talking about the post-oil future. Yes, oil will be with us for a long time yet. Oil is going to flow south from this state for decades upon decades into the future.

The problem is that there's going to be less and less of it, so much less that economist Scott Goldsmith is forecasting dire straits for the Alaska economy as soon as 2023 if something isn't done now.

In the short term, the state can spend less and save more to help fund a nest egg to compensate for declining oil revenues. In the mid- and long-term, the state can spend less and try to figure out ways to collect more to avoid tapping too deep into that nest egg.

The endless debate about oil taxes revolves in significant part around the latter economic reality.

On one side are those who think we should tax oil companies until they bleed, struggle and eventually leave. On the other side are those who think we should leave the companies with enough profit that they decide it wise to invest more into increasingly costly efforts to recover hard-to-get oil in Alaska's aging fields.

It is an important debate, but the Legislature should not be distracted into thinking oil taxes is the only topic worth discussion.

There is much more.

The state needs to be looking at ways to save money on day-to-day operating costs while searching for opportunities to invest money to grow Alaska. Pumping funds into programs to save moose, no matter how much we might all love the ungainly animals, isn't going to help build the economy. Neither are costly scientific adventurers to figure out why Alaska chinook salmon are disappearing at sea. It would be wonderful to know why those salmon are in decline, but there is nothing about marine survival the state can influence.

And at this point in time, lawmakers really need to be looking at those things they can influence for the better in the future.

Alaska's Age of Oil is destined to fade as surely as Alaska's Age of Gold. But there are always new opportunities for economic expansion. The world is changing, the Arctic more so than any other part of the globe.

The Arctic is becoming less and less a land of ice. Arctic shipping is on the horizon. So, too, Arctic oil and mineral development. Alaska needs a deepwater port in the Arctic as much as the U.S. needs a deepwater port in the Arctic. And as the costly grounding of Shell's Kulluk drill ship off Kodiak shows, it might not hurt to have a shipyard in-state as well. The city of Seward has been working toward that end in the hopes of Alaskanizing the state's offshore fisheries.

The Legislature should be thinking about ways to help Alaskanize other businesses, both big and small. Alaska can grow an economic identity of its own that's not wholly dependent on its status as an oil or seafood province. 

-- Alaska Dispatch

Stem state spending | Prioritize mental health | Regulate marijuana | Takeover HAARP | Thinking beyond the oil patch