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Why Alaska is ready for 'forward thinking' budgeting

  • Author: Geran Tarr
  • Updated: July 3, 2016
  • Published January 20, 2015

We're all familiar with the saying "penny wise, pound foolish," but we would do well to heed this advice this legislative session. The No. 1 responsibility of government is to create an effective and realistic budget. Past budgets have all too often reflected the whims of parochial interests without vetting whether spending was both effective and within our means. With declining oil revenues, we are due to seriously overhaul our attitude toward budgeting.

We need a more realistic, strategic, or what I call "forward-thinking" approach.

Forward-thinking budgeting means investing to reduce our most costly social problems. When we address these problems strategically, we reduce future spending on these needs and create long-term savings. Forward-thinking budgeting means ending appropriations for projects we can't afford to buy or maintain. When we stick to realistic capital projects today, we keep future budgets to a reasonable scale. It boils down to smart spending today to prevent future costs and reduce the size of future budgets.

Alaska ranks high nationally for social ills and lags behind for education. This hits us hard in both current and future budgets while threatening Alaskan families.

Alaska has the nation's highest rate of child abuse. Alaska's rape rate is three times the national average, with 37 percent of Alaskan women having experienced sexual assault. Suicide is our highest cause of violent death outside of accidents and alcohol is a factor in over half of Alaskan suicides. Alaska ranks high for repeat criminal offenders, or recidivism.

These social ills quickly mirror as budget ills. A few examples follow. A 2012 McDowell Group report found that Alaska's annual economic cost for alcohol and drug abuse was over $1.2 billion. When our kids fall behind, they are less able to maintain jobs and are more likely to require government assistance. Women who have experienced domestic violence are overwhelmingly more likely to suffer strokes and heart attacks, driving up medical expenses and losing time at work. Boys who witness domestic violence are twice as likely to abuse their partners as adults, repeating the cycle of associated costs. At our current rate of incarceration, we are on the road to buying another prison the size of Goose Creek Correctional Center, which cost more than $250 million to construct and $50 million annually to operate. Collectively, these problems are costing Alaska's public and private sectors billions each year.

Now, let's look at a just a few examples of smart spending to prevent future costs. Research shows that every dollar spent on substance abuse treatment saves $4 in healthcare costs and $7 in law enforcement and other criminal costs. The federal Center for Substance Abuse Prevention found $18 in savings for every dollar spent on school-based alcohol and substance abuse prevention for kids.

Next, here are a few examples of smart investments to take long-term control of Alaska's budget. In 2014, I supported amendments for both workforce development education and substance abuse treatment. In 2013, I offered and supported budget amendments to increase funding for public education. Yes, increased education funding saves money when you look at the budget as a whole.

I authored "Erin's Law" to prevent child sexual abuse, a chronic, devastating, and high-cost problem in Alaska. I also authored "Mental Health First Aid" legislation to educate individuals to respond to mental health emergencies. This approach can serve some mental health needs for a fraction of the cost. I authored legislation to reduce Alaska's high rate of repeat criminal offenders. I proudly supported the 2014 bipartisan corrections reform bill that effectively reduces costs by modifying sentencing of nonviolent offenders.

We need to end frivolous spending that sets us up for perpetual high budgets. I will continue to support cutting wasteful spending, such as the unsuccessful aerospace program that has long been operating at a loss. We need to set aside road projects that, even if we could afford to build, we could not afford to operate and maintain for the long term. We irresponsibly spent tens of millions of dollars just last year on three projects that are unlikely to ever be completed: The Juneau access road, the Knik Arm bridge, and the road to Nome. We need new roads in areas like Anchorage where we are looking to undeveloped areas for growth and housing.

Forward thinking means looking for places where we get the best returns on investment of state dollars, both in terms of improving safety and health for Alaskans and reducing long-term spending. Imagine the possibilities if we can successfully address our most difficult social issues. Then, we can invest these savings in the projects that make sense for our maturing state. I welcome other legislators from all parties to join me in meeting this penny-wise goal.

Rep. Geran Tarr represents the Anchorage neighborhoods of Airport Heights, Mountain View, and Russian Jack in the state House of Representatives.

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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