“Your budget tells me exactly what your values are.”
This statement is one that I often heard while growing up, and one that I think we all can agree rings true. Alaskans are having to make very difficult decisions about our collective values. This is clearly evident during the last couple of elections and legislative sessions, as our state budget has been steadily reduced. The different sides of the value debate are clearly demonstrated in what Gov. Mike Dunleavy proposed in his budget, and returned to with his recent vetoes, and what the Legislature passed.
The Legislature, which is elected to directly represent each geographic area and each person within Alaska, and which has the ultimate power of the purse, passed its budget by a large margin — 42 votes for, 15 votes against. It included $190 million in reductions in unrestricted general funds from last year, and was the smallest operating budget in the last 15 years. This budget was not arrived at easily. Some legislators wanted more reductions and some wanted less. However, after looking closely at all the programs and services and listening to the values and priorities of all Alaskans, this was the sweet spot that 74% of the legislators who were present — 21 Democrats, 20 Republicans and two independents — voted for.
The Legislature’s budget also transferred $10.4 billion from the portion of the Permanent Fund that can be spent right now to the constitutionally protected principal that cannot be spent. This legislative action effectively locked up a large portion of the money that is available to spend right now and put it to use forever earning money for the future of our state.
The governor’s vetoes included an additional $444 million in reductions to a broad spectrum of programs and services. By far the largest veto hit the University of Alaska. However, other large vetoes included Medicaid, homelessness services, mental health and recovery programs, early childhood education, senior benefits, school debt reimbursement, Village Public Safety Officers, public broadcasting and elimination of the Nome Youth Facility.
So Alaska, it is time to answer two very difficult questions. First, what are our values? I believe that a large majority of Alaskans — I’d wager more than 74% — would say that they value compassion. We know that life sometimes requires that vulnerable individuals among us be given a hand up. This might occur through Medicaid, mental health services, recovery programs, or homelessness services. We prioritize making sure that our children have solid educational opportunities from early childhood through their college years. We hold our elders in high esteem and we recognize and respect the hard work and dedication that they have given to establish our state.
The second and perhaps harder question we must answer is how do we balance our present needs and wants against the needs and wants of our children and grandchildren? This is best demonstrated in the Permanent Fund dividend debate. On the side of “right now,” we have those who say that a $3,000 PFD and using the old formula, based on how much the protected part of the fund earns, is the way to go. In this camp, I personally would also include the governor’s decision to veto half of that $10.4 billion transfer, leaving more of the earnings reserve on the table available to be spent. For those who lean more toward looking forward, they are more likely to accept a lesser PFD and say use the new formula enacted into law last year, which calculates what a sustainable draw over time will be —currently 5.25%. They also would generally be in favor of the legislative action of locking more money up where it cannot be spent.
Two hard questions: What are our values? And “right now” or “for our future?”
Our legislators have very little time to hear from you and take action in this current budget debate to reflect Alaskans’ values and priorities. Make sure you participate by letting them know where you stand.
Mark Lackey has been an Alaska resident for 20 years. He serves as executive director of CCS Early Learning, the Head Start provider in the Mat-Su Borough and Chugiak-Eagle River.
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