Senate Pres. Meyer: Majority will not allow Alaska government shutdown

On Monday, Gov. Bill Walker sent an email to 15,000 state employees warning them about a government shutdown starting on July 1. He told these Alaskans it was the Legislature's fault for not passing a fully funded budget.

Shutting down the government is his choice, not ours. It's another attempt to force us to spend more money when we are facing an $8 billion shortfall over the next two years. It's more political gamesmanship, but this time at the expense of Alaskans who are living in fear of being laid off or not receiving essential services.

First, let us assure you the sky is not falling. We will not allow for a government shutdown. However, the actions we are being forced to take by a handful of minority Democrats over the next few days may require difficult decisions.

So let's cut through the clutter and ask the $8 billion question: Why is the Legislature in a stalemate over the budget?

Our position is simple: We must change Alaska's spending habits before we ask Alaska's working families to pay new taxes or forgo their Permanent Fund dividend.

The state of Alaska is facing an $8 billion revenue shortfall over the next two years. The cause of the shortfall? A dramatic reduction in the price of oil.

To put this into perspective: One year ago, oil was at $110 a barrel. Today, oil prices hover around $60 a barrel and there is no guarantee the price will increase.


How serious is this shortfall? That $8 billion spread across every Alaska man, woman and child is more than $11,000 per person. Do you or your children have $11,000 to spend on Alaska's government in the next two years? Like most Alaska families, probably not.

Thanks to Alaska's forefathers who created "rainy day" savings accounts, we have money to cover our immediate budget shortfall. However, if we carry on with current spending levels, on July 1, 2017, our savings accounts will be gone.

The responsible leaders of today must examine every state expense and guide Alaska through this new fiscal landscape. Overcoming this challenge means making some immediate sacrifices and being innovative about future spending plans.

When the Legislature started work in January, the Senate Finance Committee began addressing our pressing budget deficit issues. After many extensive public hearings, the Senate agreed to reductions averaging 11.4 percent across all departments -- a savings of nearly half a billion dollars.

Last month, the Alaska State Senate finished its work on time and approved a fully funded budget. Our spending plan included smart reductions while funding all critical government services, including education, public safety, health and welfare, and transportation. Including cuts to the capital budget, the Senate reduced spending by $809 million, a savings of $1,100 per Alaskan.

After the House and Senate hashed out our disagreements and passed a budget, a small minority of House Democrats demanded we spend an additional $161 million this year -- or else they will not vote to access our reserve accounts and will force a government shutdown.

"Irresponsible" is the only word we can find to describe this shortsighted demand. That is what the House Minority Democrats have made this special session about: spend more money from our limited savings accounts or they'll force us into a government shutdown.

It is important to realize that the millions of dollars the House Minority Democrats want to add to the budget are not one-time spending items. They are ongoing expenses that, if granted, will continue to spend more from our budget reserves, year after year.

Spending $17 million on raises for union workers, then having to turn around and lay off 300 state employees next year is not the right thing to do.

Ignoring the fact that our current Medicaid system becomes unsustainable after 2017 is not the right thing to do.

Believing that Medicaid expansion is in the best interest of Alaska while our current Medicaid system is losing millions of dollars annually is not the right thing to do.

Spending $161 million more this year so we have to tax more next year is not the right thing to do.

Every dollar spent today is a dollar less we will have in the future. That $161 million today is $161 million less for tomorrow's schools and our most vulnerable Medicaid recipients. There is only one savings account -- one you have entrusted us to safeguard.

With a responsible and prioritized budget, kids will continue to receive a quality education, roads will still be plowed and our communities will still be safe. It's never fun having to make sacrifices. No one is happy about the tough decisions before us. But at this time in history, we have to do the right thing: be responsible and think about what is best for Alaska's future.

We will not let thousands of Alaskans lose their paychecks starting July 1 as the governor has threatened. That is not the right thing to do. We will lead Alaska out of this fiscal crisis. That's why we plan to hold full floor sessions starting on Thursday in Anchorage and we will continue to fight for what's right and what is responsible.

Tough times mean that as Alaskans we must pull together. The Senate Majority is unified and committed to responsible spending today for a stronger future tomorrow.

Sen. Kevin Meyer is currently serving as Senate president. He represents neighborhoods in South Anchorage and the Hillside.

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.