EDITORIAL: What happened to Alaska’s swing-for-the-fences spirit?

downtown, downtown anchorage, sunset, winter

After a major but well-predicted snowstorm blanketed Anchorage in more than a foot of snow this past week, only two-thirds of the municipality’s graders were operating. That shortfall — and the chaos it prolonged on area roads — was one tiny facet of a problem that is contributing to an existential crisis for Alaska.

Economic disruption wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting shifts in the labor market have been felt around the globe, but almost nowhere in the U.S. has the recovery been so anemic as Alaska. In 2022, the gradual abatement of pandemic waves and their ripple effects across our communities has been a welcome development, but it has also exposed a shocking amount of economic weakness that had previously been masked by high oil prices and federal COVID aid. All of a sudden, we’ve got schools in danger of closing and not enough plows to keep the streets cleared, so that the buses that don’t have enough drivers can run.

How did we get here, and how do we get out?

There have been many contributors to how we’ve found ourselves in this predicament, but above all, we’ve suffered from a lack of vision. Since late 2014, when oil prices began the collapse that has defined the past decade of Alaska fiscal policy, our state’s political leaders have been too content to avoid the hard questions about our financial future. Rather than readjust the state’s budget and revenue math with an eye toward a state where oil and gas revenues can no longer provide what they once did, they chose to spend from savings once it became apparent that no political camp could enact its preferred solution carte blanche. Rather than display leadership on a long-term reformulation or reassessment of the viability of the Permanent Fund dividend, they chose to use it as a bargaining chip every year — and, cynically, they chose to make it bigger in every statewide election year.

A series of columns from Charles Wohlforth over the past several days traced the contours of the entitlement mentality the Permanent Fund dividend has created and suggested that expanding early education is one step toward a healthier future for Alaska. That’s true, and as Wohlforth wrote, it’s far from the only step.

What’s missing now more than anything is leadership and vision, the kind of sky’s-the-limit thinking that used to define Alaska politics. Certainly, there were ideas it’s best the state didn’t pursue — the domed city of Seward’s Success, for instance — but when was the last time you heard an elected Alaska politician pushing a big-picture vision for reviving the state’s economy that didn’t revolve around filling the existing oil pipeline or creating a new gas one? Our leaders are still looking backward, chasing the boom of a half-century ago rather than boldly envisioning a future that’s truly worthy of the Last Frontier.

Even smaller-scale attempts at innovation and economic diversification have been quashed by leaders’ squeamishness. The Alaska film incentive program, for instance, was beginning to grow a local talent pool for the production of TV shows and movies set here. In the six years the program was in effect, it cost the state an average of $9 million — a pittance compared to Alaska’s annual spending. But in 2015, as soon as oil revenues went into sharp decline, lawmakers killed it and ended the streams of film production revenue (and the beneficial effect the shows and movies were beginning to have on Alaska tourism). And now shows like “Alaska Daily” do most of their filming Outside, because we don’t have a local workforce with expertise to help produce them. And grader operators move Outside, because they can make a similar wage with lower costs of living in the Lower 48.

Fortunately, Alaska hasn’t entirely missed its window of opportunity to be bold again. The state’s fiscal position is sound (thanks to the foresight of some of the previous generations of visionary Alaska leaders, such as Gov. Jay Hammond) — but the trend lines are nearly all pointing in the wrong direction, so we don’t have any more time to kick the can down the road. We can’t afford the stalemates, posturing and my-way-or-the-highway attitudes that have defined the relationship between the governor and the Legislature since 2014. It’s time for hard conversations and compromise in the name of stabilizing Alaska’s budget picture — and for some big ideas about how to move forward.

Anchorage Daily News editorial board

Editorial opinions are by the 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 feedback, a letter or longer commentary for consideration, email commentary@adn.com.