With budget crisis looming, Alaska governor crowdsources cost-cutting

With the state facing eye-popping deficits, hundreds of Alaskans have responded to Gov. Bill Walker's recent online call for cost-cutting and moneymaking ideas, suggesting everything from a state lottery to four-day school weeks.

The Internet crowdsourcing, which in its opening hour brought more than 1,100 responses from state employees, is designed to help Walker and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott find potential fixes for a state suddenly facing a $7 billion budget gap over two years because state tax revenues have tanked with oil prices.

In addition to the anonymous employee survey, the administration asked the public to weigh in starting Dec. 27. That survey had resulted in more than 800 responses by Tuesday afternoon, officials said.

The five people with the best proposals will get a paid-for lunch with Walker and Mallott.

Mallott said Tuesday afternoon he'd seen a summary of the employee responses, though so many were flooding in he had not seen them all.

"They are very real-world and are identified very clearly with very specific suggestions," he said. "I believe we'll find real, real value in what we receive overall."

"There's no better group of people to come up with ideas for Alaska's budget than Alaskans," said Katie Marquette, a spokeswoman with the governor's office.

This isn't the first time an Alaska governor has sought budget ideas over the Internet. Former Gov. Sarah Palin did it in 2007 but faced a very different problem: How to invest the $1.6 billion surplus that had suddenly landed in Alaska's lap thanks to rising oil prices and a production tax that took in more money as prices increased.

"We all know oil prices will not remain at record levels forever," Palin said at the time, "and planning ahead will help ensure that we really are kicking off a new era of tax stability."

That planning left the state with more than $15 billion in the bank -- not counting today's $52 billion Alaska Permanent Fund.

Now, however, the savings are rapidly shrinking, with oil prices down 50 percent since June. Walker has also asked agency officials to identify cuts and has begun to rein in megaproject spending.

Marquette shared a few of the written ideas with Alaska Dispatch News on Tuesday after perusing some of the responses. "These are in no way endorsed," she said.

Suggestions she's seen included turning off lights in state buildings after hours and taking steps to reduce health-care expenses for state employees.

"Start by offering only healthy food in the office buildings, ditch the soda pop machines and put only healthy options in them, encourage weight loss, increased activity with healthy competitions and incentives," one person wrote.

Another suggested: "State power ball lottery set up like the one that Oregon uses to fund their roads. They sell tickets at gas stations and grocery stores and use the highway emergency signs to show the amount that it currently would pay out if your numbers were hit. The fee for the ticket is split between the prize and infrastructure."

To cut educational expenses, someone proposed, "Change from a 5-day school week to a 4-day school week," but keep the same number of weekly hours by extending the length of school days. "By eliminating Day 5 (Friday) you cut transportation and energy costs thereby reducing expenses."

The employee survey was launched Monday afternoon. After the initial burst, responses reached more than 1,800 in less than a day.

The administration is "somewhat surprised" by the large and rapid response, Mallott said.

He said employee ideas will be kept anonymous and workers won't face repercussions if their ideas are implemented.

"There will be a structured process so that the ideas will go to the right people ... and it will be done in such away that no relationships among employees and supervisors are compromised in any way," he said.

Marquette said one employee suggested a website or email list highlighting surplus agency equipment, including boats and ATVs, that can be used by other departments rather than sold at a loss.

"The way it is now, the equipment is generally sold at auction for a minimal price while other agencies in need have to go out and buy new," the employee said. "I have seen a number of times where an agency is in need of something and asks around to other agencies only to find out the exact thing they needed was just sold at the surplus auction for next to nothing."

Another employee proposed more use of inexpensive college interns to increase productivity: "They aren't restricted in the work they can learn, work flexible hours, and only need to be paid for their hourly work -- no benefits or union fees," the person wrote, adding: "I've had several interns in my positions with the state and they always outperform my expectations."

There's currently no deadline on the submissions, Marquette said. The administration has begun reaching out to faculty in the University of Alaska system to identify about 10 college students who will organize the results and present them to the governor's office for review, she said.

Students will also put the ideas into a comprehensive form that will be shared with the public, Marquette said.

Walker and Mallott will pick the winners of the free lunch. The meal will be basic, like a soup and sandwich, and will take place over time, when Walker and Mallott are traveling to the hometowns of winners for other reasons, or if the winner is passing through Anchorage or Juneau, Marquette said.

"It will be very simple, given the state of the budget," Marquette said.

Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or