We need to have a serious conversation about our fiscal crisis.
Over the last three years, the Legislature has drawn down over $14 billion of Alaska's financial reserves. With oil prices expected to stay essentially where they are, we won't get that money back anytime soon. We are down to the last of those reserves — barely $2.5 billion — as we go into the 2018 Legislature and the budget we must present to Alaskans. Gov. Bill Walker has called the Legislature into special session multiple times over the last two years to pass a complete plan. The plan he presented — a complete plan — would have allowed us to close that gap in the first Legislature of his service. Instead, we find ourselves on the precipice of disaster.
As we get ready to go into next week's special session, there are phrases that ring in my ears that shake me to my soul. We've reduced government spending to 2008 levels; state spending is so minimal that we are now in a recession. But we continue to hear assertions that we "have a bloated state budget."
This phrase comes from some members of the Alaska legislative leadership. But the facts on the ground are in stark contrast to those assertions. We do not have the public safety services that we need. In rural Alaska, we've had a young person be murdered and laid in a rock quarry covered by a tarp for four days because police could not get there to begin the process of trying to bring a perpetrator to justice.
Where is the bloated budget to deal with that?
The educational achievement of our schools has so much that is needed to improve, despite the gains we have made.
Where is the bloated budget to deal with those issues?
Nationally and in our state, we're dealing with a massive opioid crisis.
Where is the bloated budget to deal with a crisis ripping families and communities apart?
Many Alaska coastal communities are served by the Alaska Marine Highway System — the only lifeline those communities have. They are as much a part of Alaska as any urban center. This past year, their budget was short-funded by $24 million, which suggests that a significant part of that service could have to go away.
We have worked hard to reduce inefficiency in government — and we'll continue to do so. But simply cutting and waiting is not the answer.
We hear people say, "No new taxes until the government has right-sized itself." Let's not use that as an excuse to do nothing. The question we must ask is: What kind of Alaska do we want to have in the future?
If we do not resolve Alaska's fiscal crisis in this special session, and the 2018 session, you will see this:
You will see us having spent the last of our reserves. You will see those who want a minimal government having achieved it simply by doing nothing. You will not have had a vision such as what Gov. Walker has put forward that is built on values and prosperity. It includes a sense of shared purpose, and a desire to make Alaska the kind of place we know it can become. A place where economic development occurs, but is done with balance and respect for the land.
So, don't just tell us, "reduce the budget." Tell us how. If government is so bloated, tell us how we're going to deal with the opioid crisis, make our people feel safe and uphold justice statewide. Tell us how we are going to have health services across the state that meet our needs, and invest in our infrastructure, ports, schools, public buildings, roads and, yes, our ferry system. Tell us how we can build an Alaska that gives our children opportunity.
We will either have that, or we will be a colony. It's that simple.
Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott is a co-founder of the Alaska Federation of Natives. This op-ed was excerpted from his Oct. 19 AFN address; the full speech is available here.
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