Alaska’s future is in as precarious a place as ever. A host of huge, existential questions face the state and its residents: How best to close a deficit of nearly $2 billion per year? Should the state continue to pay its residents thousands of dollars apiece each fall as state services face big cuts? How can we protect a fragile economic recovery as oil revenues and related jobs continue a slow decline? With revenue scarce, how can the state muster funds to pay for a capital budget that will keep infrastructure from falling into disrepair? Is there a viable solution to develop Alaska’s vast natural gas reserves?
The backdrop as these questions await an answer this year is similarly grave: An operating budget wasn’t passed until mid-June and wasn’t approved by the governor until three days before a government shutdown — with hundreds of millions of dollars in line-item vetoes that illustrate just how far apart Alaskans’ visions for the state are. No capital budget has yet been passed, with hundreds of millions of dollars in federal highway money and other funds hanging in the balance. There has been no allocation yet for the Permanent Fund dividend, and no path to compromise on its amount. Next year’s education funding is in jeopardy because of a constitutional separation-of-powers fight between Gov. Mike Dunleavy and the Legislature.
Given the magnitude of the challenges Alaska faces, an optimistic person might expect our elected leaders to look past their differences and hammer out a compromise on the essential items left on the legislative docket — and have the hard discussions needed to find answers for the questions before us.
The past several years of failure to deal with Alaska’s problems have beaten the optimism out of most of us. And this year is no exception. Instead of settling on a dividend amount and approving a capital budget, what are our elected representatives doing? Fighting over the location of the next special session and threatening lawsuits at every turn.
The Legislature is planning to sue the governor over his refusal to turn over education funds allocated a year in advance in a bill passed during the last legislative session. For his part, Gov. Dunleavy is threatening to sue legislators and send law enforcement after them if they don’t report to Wasilla on July 8, as called for in his special session proclamation. Legislators are planning an alternate special session in Juneau and Anchorage despite not having enough support to do so, and the governor’s choice of Wasilla Middle School as a venue is a transparent ploy to force legislators to meet where his support is strongest, despite its clear deficiencies as a venue, high costs and the lack of easy in-person or electronic access for the vast majority of Alaskans.
The maneuvering by both Gov. Dunleavy and the Legislature is political, it’s cynical, it’s power-hungry and it’s hurting Alaska.
What our state needs now is practicality and pragmatism, not posturing and partisanship. And sadly, though Alaska’s politicians have been happy to indulge their base impulses, they have done so at the loud urging of Alaskans who believe that those who hold differing political views are ignorant, malicious or both.
The fact of the matter is that if Alaska is to have a future we want to live in, it won’t happen through one side always getting its way. Alaska’s problems will remain insoluble if lawmakers remain entrenched and unwilling to compromise on even minor items. What is required of lawmakers now is for some to step up and be the bigger men and women, to reach out and work with each other to find solutions rather than trying to score points with their most radical supporters. But that won’t happen unless their constituents tell them, clearly and emphatically, that it’s what Alaskans expect. We Alaskans should tell them that. We should tell them now.
Because of intransigence and brinksmanship, Alaska came within three days of a government shutdown this year. We deserve better from our elected leaders. Who among them will step back, remove the chips from their shoulders and do the job Alaskans expect?