Cutting Alaska government down to size takes wisdom and patience

Recent commentaries printed in these pages have derided myself and members of the Alaska Senate majority for our intention to "right-size" state government before asking Alaskans to accept new taxes.

When we talk about right-sizing government, we are describing the process by which we discover the least amount of government Alaskans are willing to live with and the most government Alaskans are willing to pay for.

Everyone has a "right size" of government that makes sense to them. This is what the public committee hearing process is all about: listening to Alaskans and balancing the competing views on government spending.

Our job as senators is to hear all concerns and reach a consensus on what size Alaska's government should be at this time, under these circumstances.

Let's consider last year as an example. In the course of the Senate's regular 90-day session, we reached consensus and voted to fully fund an operating and a capital budget with $777 million in spending reductions for this fiscal year. To put that into perspective, the governor's proposed income tax would generate $200 million in new revenue.

In a single session, the Alaska Senate acted to save Alaskans four years of new income tax liability because our time-tested, deliberative public process works. For observers used to microwave-speed solutions, it can be painful to watch.

Now, we're planning for fiscal year 2017. What was acceptable last year is not good enough this year. That's why we are targeting additional, substantial reductions to state spending.

What is the "right size" for Alaska state government? Everyone will have their own opinion, and the Senate Finance Committee is working day by day to balance these demands and reach consensus.

Because government services have been free for an entire generation, we believe it's essential to apply the value test that each Alaska family must use for its personal budget: Is this required? Can we live without it? When easy oil cash was picking up the tab, government probably grew in ways that were beyond essential. We're doing the detail work of identifying efficiencies and reassessing priorities.

This past week, Senate committees have been hearing and taking testimony on competing Permanent Fund earnings restructuring bills from Gov. Walker and Sen. McGuire. Public testimony has been strident and plentiful -- the sign of a healthy process. And this is just the beginning.

Drama sells newspapers. Crisis makes the headlines. We in the Senate see this as neither a crisis nor a dramatic partisan showdown. Alaska's budget crunch is a challenge but not beyond the skills and resolve of Alaskans collectively. Thanks to the foresight of previous legislators, Alaska has options and the time to be deliberative.

Many senators, myself included, remain unconvinced that Alaska state government is currently lean enough to justify invading your paycheck. We believe any new government take must be acknowledged and accepted by Alaskans as reasonable and absolutely necessary.

With your family's purchasing power on the chopping block, should we rush to judgment, or sharpen our pencils and get down to the time-consuming business of getting our government's checkbook in order?

Kevin Meyer is president of the Alaska State Senate. He has served in the state Legislature since 2001.

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