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Jenkins: Alaska has savings. Stop the panic, craft a smart plan

  • Author: Paul Jenkins
    | Alaska opinion
  • Updated: June 26, 2016
  • Published January 30, 2016

Big Money, Big Government and Big Influence are desperate for the Legislature to pitchfork Permanent Fund earnings into Alaska's nearly $4 billion budget abyss and they are engaged in a full-court press to dupe lawmakers into seeing it their way -- and right now.

The governor, KTUU reports, has spent $100,000 for lobbyists -- hey, aren't we broke? -- to hustle the notion of using the fund's earnings. GCI's president and CEO, Ron Duncan, has rounded up large Alaska businesses, unions, a former governor, Native corporation executives and others in a strange coalition -- "Alaska's Future" -- to push using the earnings.

Most involved, it is safe to say, receive dough from the state, have people working for government or depend on a healthy economy to invest or make a profit. If they succeed in steamrolling the Legislature into acting quickly, Alaskans likely will see smaller Permanent Fund dividends in the future -- and a government larger than we can afford, or need.

It is not that Walker, Duncan et al. are dead wrong in trying to use the earnings to help bail out Alaska -- sadly, that's inevitable -- it is that they are premature.

Lawmakers -- no matter what data and polls get tossed at them about how Alaskans love them -- surely remember the 1999 statewide advisory vote on using just part of the fund earnings to underwrite government. It was a sobering moment. Oil prices had skidded to $9 a barrel. The public, despite a Who's Who list at the time urging a "yes'" vote, gave the idea a thumbs-down by nearly 84 percent. Tapping earnings before every other option is explored could be a career-ender -- even today.

None of that has dampened the ardor for using the earnings, though. Anchorage Rep. Les Gara, in a note to "friends and neighbors," complained "shadowy" political operatives may be targeting legislators balking at using fund earnings. He says two political heavyweights are trying to influence Alaska legislators by targeting Republicans and Democrats alike.

It is not that nefarious. The two he refers to are Michael Dubke and Benjamin Sparks. Dubke co-founded Black Rock Group, a strategic communications and public affairs firm based in Alexandria, Virginia, with an office in Alaska. He also in 1997 co-founded Americans for Job Security -- with ties to the evil Koch Brothers, Antichrists to any good Democrat -- and Crossroads Media, a media-buying firm. Sparks managed Sen. Dan Sullivan's election campaign -- Dubke was a consultant -- lives in Anchorage and has worked on several other high-profile political campaigns. Years ago, he was with the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Their boss? Gara says it is Duncan. Sparks says he answers to the several co-chairs of Alaska's Future and is paid by the group. He says he and Dubke are about educating the public and building consensus to "empower the Legislature to go ahead and do this. We are not about pressuring anybody."

It is bothersome that those itching to toss the fund's earnings at Alaska's fiscal problem are trying to get it done quickly. Whatever the reason -- and making it a fait accompli before Alaskans catch on or legislators get the vapors is my guess -- a stampede is unnecessary.

Alaska is not destitute -- far from it. It has billions stashed in savings to carry the state for another two or three years while lawmakers hash out a balanced approach that includes sensibly cutting government before acting further -- not hacking at it with a recessionary meat ax, but closely trimming.

Inarguably, we cannot cut our way to solvency, but there are cuts to be made and questions to be asked -- before revenue enhancement. Where do all the Alaska Airlines mileage rewards on state-purchased tickets go? Do agencies have unfilled positions that are funded, but serve only as slush funds? What programs can we live without? Is the state hiring freeze for real, or a sham? The list is long.

One need only read the piece "Alaska Leads the Nation in Non-Education Government Workers" on the Alaska Policy Forum website -- alaskapolicyforum.org -- to understand state government is a little chubby.

Alaskans who will get stuck with the tab for whatever government emerges from this mess should be paying close attention when some of the state's wealthiest citizens and organizations are fighting to maintain state spending -- despite the deficit.

After all, you stand to be taxed in every conceivable way, eventually lose your Permanent Fund dividends and suffer increased local taxes because state revenue-sharing is drying up. You must let your lawmakers know what you think, that you expect them to look out for your interests, not the interests of those who profit from the government status remaining very quo, that you come first.

It is, after all, supposed to be government of you, for you and by you -- not instead of you.

Paul Jenkins is editor of the AnchorageDailyPlanet.com, a division of Porcaro Communications.

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@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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