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Alaska lawmakers need to settle budget now, then turn to the long term

  • Author: Alice Rogoff
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published May 16, 2015

I am embarrassed for our state. Our Legislature seems to have caught the disease of the U.S. Congress, of gridlock and political posturing as a goal and threats of government shutdown as a solution.

That isn't the way Alaskans solve problems. This is a state of proud, self-sufficient and practical people who fix things when they're broken.

The underlying problem – the need to change our state's financial picture – isn't going away. While oil prices may be rising now, no one in the oil industry believes that total oil production will grow meaningfully in the next decade. We have to supplement oil revenue with other sources for the next chapter of Alaska's future, using our own wealth and savings somehow, raising taxes of some sort, and perhaps borrowing against our wealth for long-term investment in new economic activity: gas, LNG, infrastructure where it supports growth, and so forth. But later has to come quickly, to keep our economy from shrinking. State government spending really does influence our liquidity, our jobs, and Alaskans' standard of living. Worse, we can't get to fixing the big picture until we pass a funded budget. That has produced the gridlock.

Somehow, the parties have stopped trying to find common ground on spending and how to fund it. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking.

Under our Constitution, we have a deadline to meet to keep our government funded. The ticking stops next Tuesday at midnight.

In all the political posturing, one baseline fact has gotten lost: Our annual, state government spending -- per person (and adjusted for inflation) -- hasn't really grown since the early 1980s. Even when capital spending is added, averaged over the same long term, there hasn't been substantial growth. We have not spent "like drunken sailors," as some say. We just have more people.

This answers the question, broadly at least, of how much state government we want to have. Voters have signed on for this general level of spending -- per person -- for over 30 years, through good and bad times. This is just plain fact. Numbers don't lie. So finding the belt-tightening needed this year shouldn't be cause to grind our government to a halt. Yes, budget choices have to be made. No, I don't personally believe the real amount of public education should be sacrificed. But compromises are within reach, and legislators were elected to find them.

Please do so. Then we can all get about looking at solving for the long term.

All the wealth that past generations of leaders planned for and built is here. It's available to us. And it fundamentally changes the equation. We just have to start the public debate on how best to tap into it. There is no time to waste to start that process, keep our economy moving and restore confidence to the businesses and consumers who are watching. We all want to do our part at being problem solvers.

This week, I attended a meeting hosted by Gov. Bill Walker, along with a cross-section of others in the business community, to air this topic more broadly. I suspect that the consensus in that room is mirrored across the state. The message to our Legislature is simple: Move on, now, to the long-term fixes. We need our leaders to act like leaders, not just draw lines in the sand.

So legislators, pass a funded budget and let us re-prioritize and find financial solutions once that's done.

Alice Rogoff is publisher of Alaska Dispatch News.

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, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com

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