The best thing that can be said about the Legislature this year is that its members finally took an unpopular but necessary vote to close a considerable portion of Alaska's mammoth budget deficit. That shouldn't be undervalued; the passage of a percent-of-market-value plan that will use earnings from the Alaska Permanent Fund to help cover the cost of state services is the single biggest step legislators could take to help balance the budget.
But lawmakers also shouldn't break their arms patting themselves on the back for doing so — before taking that hard vote, the Legislature punted on the issue in 2015, 2016 and 2017, waiting until the statutory and constitutional budget reserves were drained before deciding how to address the issue in a smarter way than just spending from savings every year.
The hard work of balancing the budget is far from over; in fact, the hardest choices may be yet to come. Barring an influx of revenue from higher oil prices or increased production, next year's budget deficit will likely be close to a billion dollars. With services already cut substantially from pre-recession levels, it will be near impossible to solve the deficit through further reductions, absent major structural changes in state funding for formula-driven services such as health care and education. Those changes would reduce services that are crucial to tens of thousands — even hundreds of thousands — of Alaskans. Some legislative leaders, believing such steps are necessary, are already looking down this path.
The other option will be changes that increase state revenue, the most obvious of which — and most derided by Alaskans and lawmakers alike — are taxes. But whether those taxes take the form of changes to the state's oil tax structure or individual taxes on income or sales, they will decrease investment beneficial to the state's economy. That decrease in investment and spending could deepen the state's recession. There are no easy answers.
The worst news about the legislative session, from a public accountability standpoint, is that it was business as usual. For folks who don't watch Juneau particularly closely, what that means is that for months at the beginning of the session, the pace of work is slow and gamesmanship is high. Important pieces of legislation are held hostage in committees to extract concessions from their sponsors' caucuses, then released in a flood in the final few days when legislative leaders come to terms on the budget or other must-pass bills.
A particularly egregious example of hostage-taking this year included Senate Bill 76 from Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, which would have given Alaska's alcohol laws a much-needed overhaul. The bill was held for months in the House Labor and Commerce Committee. It only emerged after Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, herself a former bar owner, grafted on a disastrous amendment to restrict serving sizes at breweries and distilleries that ended up killing the bill altogether.
Elsewhere, House Rules Committee co-chair Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage, held a statewide workplace smoking ban bill hostage for the entire session before the volume of public outcry became too strong to ignore.
These were only two of many bills that went unheard for most of the session, many of which had only perfunctory hearings, before being dealt with in a rush as the clock ticked down to adjournment. Many didn't get the public hearings they needed and deserved. In most cases, Alaskans were only dimly aware of the bills, if they'd heard about them at all.
This is a broken process, and there's no easy fix. Legislators will continue to hold up bills and use them as leverage to further their caucus' own ends. They will abuse the process of regular order to stifle debate on measures they don't support. The only way to mitigate the phenomenon at all is to apply public pressure — quickly, consistently and unremittingly. Even then, it's not a sure thing, but it's the best tool available.
As legislators return to their districts, let them know you paid attention to what happened in Juneau. Give them kudos for the work they did that you supported, and offer criticism for their failures. Let them know there's an election this fall, and how they vote affects how you do. The process in Juneau isn't healthy, but it's our shared responsibility to hold lawmakers accountable for their actions. Without that feedback from the public, nothing in the Legislature is likely to improve anytime soon.