Editorials

EDITORIAL: Even drunken sailors know better

How much would it cost to buy your vote? Gov. Mike Dunleavy and his allies in the Legislature are hoping $5,500 is enough.

Sure, they’ll hide behind excuses like standing by statutory dividend language — well, one statute, while utterly trashing another — or a belief that Alaskans can spend money better than government can. But at its heart, the payout of nearly $3.6 billion is a bribe, a cynical gambit that if lawmakers throw enough cash at Alaskans, they’ll vote to reelect those who pushed for the check, regardless of the economic chaos it wreaks in the years and generations to come.

Don’t be fooled.

The death of fiscal conservatism

Every year during the budget process, the governor and legislators have tried to cast themselves as prudent stewards of the state treasury, whittling away at budget priorities that they personally see as being less valuable. If their red ink were spread evenly across the budget, perhaps they could lay legitimate claim to the mantle of fiscal conservatism. But in fact, their endless appetite for ballooning the state’s largest expense lays bare the fact that they’re perfectly happy to bleed the state’s coffers dry if it means they get to stay in office until the bill comes due.

The architect of this year’s disastrous mega-dividend is Sen. Mike Shower, R-Wasilla, who offered the fateful amendment that created a $1 billion deficit — requiring the state to drain its already diminished savings even if oil prices remain sky-high. Sen. Shower teamed up with a bizarre alliance of hard-right Republicans and Democrats in the Senate — Sens. Mia Costello, Roger Holland, Shelley Hughes, Scott Kawasaki, Robert Myers, Donny Olson, Lora Reinbold, Bill Wielechowski and David Wilson — to add more than a billion dollars in state spending in one fell swoop.

If oil prices average less than $74 per barrel for the next fiscal year, as they have for each of the past seven fiscal years, Alaska will burn through every penny of its remaining savings to fund their budget, and the only account left will be the Permanent Fund. In service of a big one-time check that Sen. Shower, Gov. Dunleavy and a stupefying number of legislators believe is their ticket back into office, they’re willing to push all of the state’s chips onto the roulette table and tell the dealer to “let it ride.” As House Speaker Louise Stutes said, “All these conservative people just spent all our money, all our savings account, and money that we haven’t gotten yet.”

In a sense, it’s morbidly ironic that a budget this large and irresponsible is the work of Sen. Shower and others who claim the mantle of fiscal conservatism. Besides the fact that their plan spends more than a billion dollars more than the state is forecast to bring in, it returns the state to a level of spending that we haven’t seen since early 2015. Remember just last year, when we all bemoaned the state’s dire fiscal situation and pined for the halcyon days nearly a decade ago, when the state held $16 billion in savings? We looked back at those days aghast at the level of state spending, wishing our leaders had been better stewards of our then-bountiful revenue. And now, because of an unexpected war in Eastern Europe, it’s like we’ve learned nothing from the past 10 years — and it’s these so-called “conservatives” who seem to have the worst amnesia.

The governor tries to pull strings

Ordinarily, a budget so irresponsible would likely be dead on arrival in the House. But according to legislators, Gov. Dunleavy had closed-door conversations to bully state representatives into voting for concurrence with the Senate budget. The governor’s line-item veto power is a potent weapon when it comes to budgetary hostage-taking, enabling the governor to threaten legislators’ priorities — K-12 education, infrastructure funding, the University of Alaska — unless they vote how he wants. In a Legislature so divided, there’s no chance of a veto override.

But the thing about bullies is that if you give them what they want, they’ll always be back for more. The House did the right thing by standing strong against this unethical political hardball tactic — and against this irresponsible budget — by voting against concurrence. But it was a close vote: Reps. Ben Carpenter, Mike Cronk, Neal Foster, Ron Gillam, Delena Johnson, Kevin McCabe, Ken McCarty, Ron McKay, David Nelson, Josiah Patkotak, Mike Prax, Sara Rasmussen, George Rauscher, Laddie Shaw, Cathy Tilton, Chris Tuck, Sara Vance and Tiffany Zulkosky voted in favor of accepting the Senate’s massive overspending.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that one body simply rubber-stamping the other’s budget instead of hammering out the House and Senate’s differences is nearly unprecedented. The last — and only — time it happened was in 1982, 40 years ago. There’s a reason it’s so rare: It’s not good governance to fail to work out the flaws and points of contention, particularly when one of those flaws is a difference of more than a billion dollars in state spending. Groups that are often at odds politically, such as the Alaska Chamber and the AFL-CIO, had united to call on legislators to reject the Senate’s farce of a budget, citing its devastating potential impacts on Alaska’s future.

What future do we want?

Besides being one of the largest state budgets in history, it’s also one of the riskiest. The war in Ukraine has sent oil prices higher, creating a windfall in state revenue that nobody expected or predicted. World oil prices are difficult to predict during times of stability, and impossible to know during disruptive times like these. Betting the state’s fiscal future on that volatile price is terrifying. But not to worry, Sen. Shower and his allies know for sure that for the next 14 months, oil prices will remain north of $100 per barrel. And if you believe that, Shower’s got a rail extension to sell you.

Sen. Shower, Gov. Dunleavy and others in the House and Senate are willing to spend $1 billion in savings and risk fiscal oblivion for a one-year spending spree. But that’s not the only path available to us. Cooler heads can still prevail. With the House vote against concurring with the Senate’s reckless, irresponsible budget, it’s now up to the conference committee to make sure we can keep money in savings, guard against oil price downturns and chart a course toward a future where Alaska can reliably fund services while staying within our means. That’s the path the conference committee should find the fortitude to choose — and if they manage to, Alaskans should declare that their votes aren’t for sale, and punish the hypocrisy of the free-spending “conservatives” in November.


Anchorage Daily News editorial board

Editorial opinions are by the Anchorage Daily News editorial board, which welcomes responses from readers. Board members are ADN President Ryan Binkley, Publisher Andy Pennington and Opinion Editor Tom Hewitt. The board operates independently from the ADN newsroom. To submit a letter or longer commentary for consideration, email commentary@adn.com.

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