Our economy has lost jobs and our state has lost population for the last three years. How do we turn things around and jump-start economic growth? It starts with a strong education system, a focus on public safety and stable, pro-business fiscal policy.
Ask any parent what they’re looking for in a community, and most will say the same thing: A strong public education system. Unfortunately, our schools are struggling to provide high-quality education in the face of cuts in state funding and state reimbursement for school maintenance. Alaska has incredible teachers, administrators and engagement from parents and parent-teacher associations. The University of Alaska has leading research programs, but years of cuts and uncertainty threaten the excellence of research and instructional programs that are necessary for our state’s economic competitiveness. We don’t need massive increases in funding, but we do need to stop the bleeding and ensure school and university funding at least keeps pace with inflation.
The Legislature has attempted to keep funding consistent, but Gov. Mike Dunleavy has vetoed education funding, resulting in significant cuts. In addition, the administration vetoed funding for school maintenance. Many school districts including Anchorage are falling farther and farther behind in maintenance, and until the administration supports school bond debt reimbursement we won’t be able to maintain the schools we already have. Ironically, repeated vetoes of school maintenance dollars have harmed students in the Mat-Su region the most, with significant negative impacts on Anchorage as well.
Alaska is losing young families to other states. To reverse this population decline and retain hard-working families, let’s restore stability to education funding.
We need to strengthen public safety. Too many businesses face daily challenges from theft, vagrancy and homelessness. It’s no mystery why: Anchorage residents tax themselves to the cap, but we have a police force that is smaller than almost any other for a municipality of our size. The Anchorage Assembly has wisely created a mental health crisis intervention team, but there’s not enough space at Alaska Psychiatric Institute, or API, to house people suffering from severe mental health issues. We also lack the outpatient behavioral health treatment that can help addicts when they seek help. Addiction is the root cause of so much property crime, and we can’t get crime down low enough without treating that root cause. To address these interrelated issues, the state needs to work in partnership with localities. API needs to function at capacity, and we should support organizations like the Mental Health Trust Authority that are working to expand outpatient behavioral health treatment.
Providing fiscal stability in our state should be simple, and is key to provide businesses with confidence to invest. Our sovereign wealth fund supports most state operations, so we have been able to keep the state tax burden low on individuals. All we have to do to protect this low-tax environment is adhere to our percent-of-market-value spending cap so the Permanent Fund can sustain state operations and dividends for years to come. The only obstacle to fiscal stability is demagogic proposals to pay out massive Permanent Fund dividends now, which would force billions of dollars in new taxes and zero PFDs in the near future. If policymakers would speak with one voice in support of fiscal discipline, we would ensure individuals and businesses don’t have to worry about the risk of massive tax increases that would result from over-spending.
Our state has lost jobs and population for too many years. Let’s turn our economy around and work together in support of job creation. With fiscal discipline and support for public education and public safety, our private sector can grow once again.
Zack Fields represents downtown Anchorage in the Alaska House of Representatives, where he co-chairs the Labor and Commerce Committee.
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