I have been a keen observer of the Alaska political scene for more than five decades, including 15 years as an elected official. The recent special session debacle represents perhaps the most dysfunctional several weeks of our state government in ‘'inaction'’ as I have ever witnessed. Unlike many pundits and editorial writers, who try to lay the blame on the 22 legislators who convened in Wasilla, the real problem was with the majority of legislators who decided to ignore the governor’s proclamation declaring a special session and identifying the location outside of Juneau, as he is allowed to do by statute.
What could possibly have been accomplished by convening in Juneau? The majority lacked the 45 votes necessary to overturn vetoes. The majority even lacked the 40 votes needed to call their own special session. Clearly, the cards were held by the minority and the governor, and they were in Wasilla, ready to work with the majority on possible compromise solutions. The majority members were like my friend Bob, who went to Vegas and promptly sat down at an empty poker table and demanded to play. He was politely informed that you have be at a table where the cards are being dealt.
It is my belief that if the majority had gone to Wasilla and engaged with their colleagues, they would have likely agreed on restoring certain budget items through veto overrides and could have likely got the governor’s concurrence as well. Instead, they engaged in what I consider to be a childish power play, essentially saying, ‘‘We’ll meet where we damn well please, even though we will accomplish nothing in the process.’’ Many members of the majority group are friends and people I have politically supported over the years. It is time for these folks to swallow a little pride and work with the other 22 members for the good of Alaska.
Therein lies the rub, of course. What is best for Alaska and in particular, what is the fate of the Permanent Fund dividend? The people of Alaska have diverse opinions on this hot topic and legislators are clearly torn about the path forward as well. Is it the people’s money, the rainy-day fund or some combination of the two? Many Alaskans are clearly skeptical of letting government get its hands on another source of revenue, and given the unsustainable spending of the past 15 years or so, it’s not hard to sympathize with that position. This is even more evident when the spending over the last few years has been funded by using our savings accounts to pay for recurring costs. It’s not how any of us would ideally fund our household budgets.
What has been lost in the discussion is the fact that Alaska has been in this position several times in the past few decades, generally as a result of crashing oil prices. We survived these down times by tightening our belts and becoming more efficient. We survived without once tampering with the statutory formula for calculating dividends. In good times and bad, the formula has worked for Alaskans.
Like the price of oil, the investment returns that fund the PFD has had its highs and lows and Alaskans have seen dividends as low as $600 and as high as $2,200. Alaskans accepted the dividends, both high and low, because they believed in the fairness and honesty incorporated into the formula. We accepted the results because we knew that politicians wouldn’t be able to access the fund and spend it like they have done with the Constitutional Budget Reserve. Armed with a court ruling, our legislators and the previous administration have broken that trust and the money grab is on.
One thing I have learned about government is that it will spend every dime you give it, justify it, and ask for more. I urge our legislators, particularly the rogue majority, to sit at the table where the cards are being dealt, and work with the governor and minority members to correct the spending problem that is threatening Alaska’s financial future.
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