In the mid-fourth century B.C. Aristotle said, “You will never do anything in this world without courage. It is the greatest quality of the mind next to honor.”
Have you ever attended the annual Alaska police officer or firefighter memorial services, held respectively each May and September in communities across Alaska? Hearing the roll call of these men and women who laid down their lives for us, running your hands over their names in granite relief and talking with their survivors is sorrowful, humbling and beautiful.
Moving from the streets of Alaska to the Capitol halls of Juneau, we recently witnessed another display of rare courage by a different kind of public servant. In the bustle of the Capitol, it might have easily slipped by without comment or recognition. Not today. What was so remarkable? The courageous act was done on behalf of those public servants who protect us.
On March 7, Rep. Andy Josephson, representing midtown Anchorage in the Alaska Legislature, presented House Bill 22 to the House State Affairs committee. He did so immediately after undergoing emergency surgery requiring hospitalization. He asked for a postponement of the hearing so he could recover, but his request was denied.
Although severely compromised, Josephson gathered himself and presented the legislation, which seeks to provide a public safety retirement system, with fair benefits and reasonable costs. In doing so, he held the line for every community in Alaska, for every understaffed public safety agency, and for every police officer and firefighter. Josephson was a picture of grace under fire, an example of the highest standard of a public servant.
House Bill 22, and Senate Bill 88 sponsored by Sen. Cathy Giessel of Anchorage, are the latest in a decades-old effort to respond to the overwhelming data documenting the public safety crisis in Alaska, where more than one-third of our communities have no law enforcement at all and only one trooper exists for every 1,000 square miles. At a recent legislative hearing, our Dept. of Public Safety Commissioner highlighted the statewide public safety recruitment and retention challenges, and was asked to comment on the lack of troopers to do the job. He simply stated, “this is ridiculous.” He’s right, and this staffing crisis goes well beyond public safety.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s Office of Management and Budget director just reported that one in five state jobs is vacant and every public service agency is experiencing significant recruitment and retention challenges, compromising the state’s ability to deliver public services. The primary challenge driving the recruitment and retention crisis of all public service agencies is well documented by local and state government leadership. Since 2005, the state of Alaska has simply not been an attractive employer.
How did this happen? In the early 2000s, a combination of skyrocketing health care costs, a market crash and bad actuarial advice left the state with a significant past service cost on its pension system. The state of Alaska fired and sued Mercer, the actuary who tried to cover up its bad advice as to the number of payroll contributions necessary for a well-funded pension. The state won in court, but the damage to Alaska and workforce stability was done.
Reacting to this debacle, in 2005, the Alaska Legislature had a contentious debate around SB 141 addressing our state employee retirement systems. In a narrow vote, the Legislature terminated the defined-benefit pension system and instituted a new defined-contribution plan. The idea was the new plan would cost less and have comparable benefits to the defined-benefit pension it replaced. How did this work out? Not well.
The Alaska Division of Retirement and Benefits just completed a side-by-side comparison of the defined-contribution plan with the older defined-benefit pension and found that the normal service cost of the defined contribution plan is three times higher than the normal service cost of the defined-benefits pension plan. Worse yet, the current plan significantly underperforms expectations, leaving employees with as much as 15% less salary replacement. But wait, there’s more.
Alaska is one of 15 states that opted out of Social Security for government employees in the 1950s, so Alaska’s public workers do not have this safety net. The Social Security Administration reports that 50% of retired couples and 70% of single retirees get at least half of their income from Social Security benefits. For most of Alaska’s public sector employees, there are no Social Security benefits waiting for them in retirement.
This has resulted in Alaska’s staggeringly high vacancy rates in all public service agencies, a nationally recognized public safety crisis, school districts that can’t find teachers or support staff, roads that don’t get plowed, and many more service shortages.
Is this problem fixable? You bet it is.
The problem is a lack of courage, it is the enemy inside the wire. We allow out-of-state “think tanks” to occupy our governor’s office and lecture the leadership of our state agencies on reasonless budget theories that nearly destroyed our state in 2019. To continue this path is Constitutional neglect of duty. If we are not courageous enough to push back on the ideological extremism of those with no vested interest in the safety and well-being of our communities, we may as well close shop as a state and admit our children have no future here.
I don’t believe for a minute this is where most Alaskans stand. We are a people who repeatedly overcome self-interest and petty rivalries to pursue viable solutions to public policy challenges. We reject the oversimplification of opposing policy arguments and mindless partisan rancor. And we desire rigorous debate and persuasion to occur with decorum and dignity.
Our police officers and firefighters do their duty, our teachers do their duty, our plow truck drivers, and all the other men and women who deliver the critically needed public services to Alaskans every day do their duty. Their service has immense meaning. In their turn, and through their courage, they hold the line for Alaska. May God help the Alaska Legislature hold the line for them.
Chuck Kopp is a lifelong Alaskan, a former member of the Alaska House of Representatives and a policy consultant.
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