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10 things to consider after 'Conversation with Alaskans' on fiscal future

  • Author: Bill Hall
  • Updated: July 7, 2016
  • Published June 11, 2015

The gathering of participants in Gov. Walker's "Conversation with Alaskans" in Fairbanks included members of his transition team plus some public members. I was one of the public members -- without portfolio -- meaning I did not represent an industry, an employer or an organization. I paid my own way to the event. There were about 50 of us mixed in with approximately 150 of the "other." We were assigned to smaller discussion groups, so my reflections are specific to the groups in which I participated.

One of the stated goals of the event was to begin a conversation with Alaskans about how we could build a sustainable future for Alaska. I took this to mean that we, in our conversations, would create a framework for a statewide public discussion. I quickly learned that my interest in discussing the public good was competing with the interests of others who were concerned with narrower interests.

The centerpiece of the discussions was a fiscal spreadsheet model with options for selecting different levels of spending and options for increasing income with the goal of balancing a budget referred to as "getting to the green." One day was devoted to discussing choices for cutting the budget and one day to discussions on how we could increase revenues to the state through combinations of taxes, user fees, and spending a portion of our investment income (more commonly referred to as spending some of the earnings of the Permanent Fund). It was emphasized and agreed by most, if not all, that eliminating the PFD was not advocated. Rather, spending earnings of the fund that were left over after funding the dividend and inflation proofing should be considered. The model was comprehensive, complex and illuminated the varied possibilities of spending and taxing.

In my groups, we did not frame a conversation for public discussion. We did reach consensus that the conversation should include citizens' taxes (income and sales) and use of Permanent Fund earnings in excess of dividends and inflation proofing.

I posed a question to my revenue group: Given the fact we will be asking citizens to tax themselves, and spend some of our children's investment income, "What help can we expect from the oil industry?" The only response was from a BP representative, who said, "We dealt with that last year." I disagreed. Everything must be on the table.

The sessions were a good beginning to a public conversation that I believe needs to recognize the following:

• We were a democratic assembly (not representative of the general public) which means we had no power to enact -- only to advise. Or, more accurately, give permission to our elected leaders to consider a broader range of options than they have this legislative session.

• The fiscal choices we make will change our government which presents us with both an opportunity and an obligation to consider how it can better serve the people of Alaska.

• We have the capacity as a wealthy state with many wealthy citizens to fully fund the government we need.

• We do not yet have the trust or political will to do so.

• Although the numbers in the spreadsheet appear to be value-neutral, what they represent is not value-neutral.

• We are making moral choices about who we are as Alaskans, and we have a moral framework in our constitution by which we can evaluate those choices.

• Article 1, Section 1 states that, "all persons have corresponding obligations to the people and to the State."

• Article 1, Section 2 states that "All government … is instituted solely for the good of the people as a whole."

• Article 8, Section 2 states that, "The Legislature shall provide for the … development of … all natural resources … for the maximum benefit of its people."

• Will we make fiscal choices with moral consequences, or moral choices with fiscal consequences?

I invite other public participants of the Fairbanks gathering to share their own reflections. It's a good way for all Alaskans to begin a public dialogue.

Bill Hall is a lifelong Alaskan from Cordova. For the past six years he has worked to create a network of library-based programs for civic dialogue. Let's Talk Anchorage, a collaboration between Alaska Common Ground and the Anchorage Public Library, is one result of his work. Contact him through the "Let's Talk Anchorage" Facebook group at https://www.facebook.com/groups/LTAnchorage/.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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