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Alaskans deserve budget-cut specifics from lawmakers, not empty phrases

  • Author: Dermot Cole
    | Opinion
  • Updated: July 7, 2016
  • Published January 21, 2016

Sen. Pete Kelly doesn't like the news coverage the Legislature has been getting.

In what has become a common theme for the Fairbanks Republican, he chided reporters at the conclusion of a finance meeting Thursday for failing to live up to his standards. In a similar spiel in October, he used the words "horrible" and "pathetic."

On Thursday, he complained about an Alaska Dispatch News story from a year ago about the $20,000-a-month subsidy for operating the legislative lounge in the state Capitol. He also complained about special session coverage that focused on the "little nit-picking stuff between people and the meanness and all of those things and the overall fiscal picture was lost."

"The biggest thing that has been lost over the last two years has been that we have cut the size of state government. People don't understand that because it wasn't reported," he said.

There's something wrong with this picture.

While the ADN ran a story on the legislative lounge, which should have prompted Kelly and company to raise rates, cut expenses and trim the subsidy, we've published dozens of stories and columns on the state budget — some better than others — providing details on what happened and the prospects for the future. It's been hard to miss.

Kelly blames reporters for failing to tell the public about the budget and says the Legislature is not getting the credit it deserves for cutting the operating and capital budgets by a total of $800 million. The public doesn't know about the cuts and this makes it harder for the Legislature to act, according to him.

Well, there is plenty of blame to go around.

The people who write about the state fiscal situation, including me, can certainly do a better job in explaining the complicated details of the fiscal challenge in Alaska and the difficult trade-offs we face. To return the favor, let me suggest Kelly and his colleagues can do a better job as well.

As the co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, he can start with clear answers about what should be cut in state government and how much he wants to use from the Permanent Fund earnings reserve to fill the fiscal gap this year. He also needs to acknowledge that the Permanent Fund dividend could be wiped out within a few years if oil prices stay down and if nothing else is done to restructure state finances.

"We have to cut and we have to go earnings reserve and that's kind of the plan," Kelly said Thursday. More cuts in the state budget and the use of Permanent Fund earnings have to be part of any fiscal plan, so I'm glad he sees the need for action.

But I'm troubled by the argument that unspecified budget cuts and Permanent Fund earnings are the only parts of the plan. Any proposal that relies exclusively on drawing money from the Permanent Fund will fail because it will not spread the pain to all segments of Alaska society. A plan has to be balanced with tax measures or it stands no chance.

Asked Tuesday at a news conference about what specific budget cuts he supports, Kelly referred to "broad-based reductions to government. You want to know what the specific cut is? It's a cut to government."

Sorry, but that is not at all specific. It's ducking the question. It is an attempt to avoid a political backlash by sticking to unidentified across-the-board percentage cuts, leaving it to Gov. Bill Walker to make unpopular calls.

To ensure the Legislature receives the proper credit and/or blame for budget decisions, Kelly and others ought to be candid with the public, as that is the best way to engage Alaskans in a real discussion. They need to stop using meaningless terms like "right-sizing government" and identify what services, programs and jobs they want to reduce or eliminate.

As soon as Kelly and the other leaders of the Legislature come clean about what has to give, the sooner the public will understand what has to be done. The longer they draw this out, the more difficult it will be for all of us.

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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