As Alaskans, we are accustomed to harsh weather and less-than-ideal road conditions that often grace our commutes throughout the state this time of year, but we are also accustomed to an adequate response by our state road maintenance crews. Lately the weather has been winning the battle of man versus the elements. Every year we hear complaints about slow response time or lack of attention to specific roadways, but I find myself asking, why this year more than others?
I'm troubled by the conclusion I'm reaching after listening to the administration's presentation of the Sovereign Wealth plan and communicating with Department of Transportation (DOT) Commissioner Marc Luiken. Could the current political climate really be playing into the fact that our roads are less safe than they could be after a snowstorm? And when weather conditions create icy streets, could the administration really be jockeying into position to protect department budgets while we pump our brakes wondering where the sand is and whether we'll stop in time?
Maintaining safe roadways to prevent accidents should always be a top priority for DOT. It is a matter of life and safety. Regardless of politics or budgets, the administration should never play games with the public when it comes to safety, not in this department or any other.
Here's how the political ploy works, and admittedly it's been used in the past: Cut where people will feel it, wait for the public outcry and watch the Legislature restore the funding.
It's different this time, though. Because we're facing a $3.5 billion fiscal gap, the "restore the funding" step that the administration is proposing involves raising taxes and changing the flow of money related to our PFDs (which eventually would likely lower our annual checks).
How can Gov. Walker convince the public of this plan? The administration surely isn't using Alaskans on our icy roadways as pawns in a political game of money and power, or is it?
If we'd already cut the state budget to the bare bone -- not just where the public feels it but where they can't -- that would be one thing. If we literally could not afford adequate crews to maintain safe roads in a timely manner, the Legislature indeed would be tasked to restore some funding, as life and safety issues are its priority as well. But this is not the case.
The cuts thus far to the operating budget have not rendered departments down to their core. Case in point: Only a handful of state employees aren't returning to work this year, and most of those were planning to exit anyway. Activities are still being conducted by departments even though they're not all essential, nor all required by our state constitution.
With 3,000-plus employees, it's true that Luiken has no easy task with ferries and roads and airports to oversee across a very large state. DOT did receive a 12.5 percent state general fund reduction in the last state operating budget, and although that's substantial, it's quite survivable considering the growth of the budget in earlier years and the fact that federal revenue streams for road projects are still flowing to DOT.
In addition, the department still received $144 million in state general funds for the operation and maintenance of roads and airports. Not chump change. When I urged Commissioner Luiken to pull back in other parts of the department, instead of "where the rubber meets the road," he indicated that only $10 million of his $144 million was not in direct service. His idea of direct service and mine obviously differ, and mine does not include thousands of employees in offices at desks.
So far, DOT has ceased overtime statewide for winter road maintenance, and in the Central Region, DOT has cut two seasonal positions. This equates to fewer workers out after winter storms. This also equates to unsafe road conditions for longer periods of time. Commuters are testifying to the dangerous situation. We've all experienced it: parents driving kids, seniors heading to their medical appointments, teenagers driving to sports practice -- treacherous conditions and scary predicaments.
In fact, a dozen hours after the last major snowstorm had calmed, I found piles of snow still on the Parks Highway in the populated corridor, and the same on the state-maintained portion of Bogard Road (interestingly, at the very same time, the portion the Mat-Su Borough maintains at a lower cost was superbly cleared). I understand that DOT prioritizes roadways based on traffic volume, location and other factors, but this alone does not explain what we are seeing in comparison with prior years.
Think of a business, a company similar in size to the combination of the various departments of the State of Alaska. What if it were facing a substantial shortfall -- what would it do? Would it scale back, look for efficiencies, trim excesses, reassess its core services? Of course it would. Now, let's zoom in a little more. Would it scale back where the customer interfaces with the company, shortchange that experience? Or would it keep that experience intact and scale back further up the food chain, in ways the customer wouldn't even notice? Certainly the profit motive dictates the latter.
In the case of state government, the profit motive is nonexistent. A noble motive is in its place, however: the life and safety and best interest of Alaskans. The challenge is that only those with integrity in state government will adhere to it when budgets are tight. I hope this motive spurs the administration to keep the people of Alaska / state government interface intact and scale back further up the food chain. When Gov. Walker unveils his detailed budget legislation, we'll find out his intentions. Sadly, many officials and bureaucrats whose vision is distorted by power, money and politics fail to adhere to this most basic mission. Let's hope this administration resists the temptation to scale back fundamental services in order to try to win public support for a tax-and-spend plan. Let's hope DOT and the other departments put the life and safety of Alaskans first.
Rep. Shelley Hughes represents District 11, greater Palmer, in the Alaska House of Representatives. She is co-chair of the House Transportation Committee.
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