Alaska Voices: Alaskans deserve a budget that reflects our values

Alaska Voices: Alaskans deserve a budget that reflects our values

It’s important to step back and look at what government is and what it does.

  • Saturday, August 17, 2019 10:35pm
  • Opinion

As the Legislature and the governor wrestle with assuring an affordable and sustainable budget, Alaskans are being forced to decide what we, as a society, value. It’s not surprising that good people disagree. In these past weeks, Alaskans have spoken loudly and clearly about the programs and services they value, causing the governor to re-examine his vetoes. In our own lives, we pay for what we value: electricity, school supplies, winter boots, cell service. Deciding what we value — and how to pay for it — in our very diverse, unique, and vast state is the heart of what legislators and the governor must do every year.

We’re sometimes told that government is “bloated.” Or, we hear anger and resentment toward “government” in general. So, it’s important to step back and look at what government is and what it does.

In reality, “government” is mostly an array of public services delivered for Alaskans by Alaskans. These services are an expression of what we, the people, have collectively deemed worthy to provide for ourselves, our families, and our neighbors. Whether it’s the school custodian, driver’s license examiner, child protection worker, prosecutor, fisheries biologist, water quality specialist, or corrections officer, it’s a public service.

And, government is citizens like me and hundreds and hundreds of other everyday Alaskans, in the Legislature or on assemblies or school boards across the state, elected to conduct the public’s business and to assure critical services.

Citizens wrote the Alaska Constitution, which requires state government to provide education, health, and welfare, all of which are more expensive in a high cost of living state with few concentrated population centers. Those citizen delegates decided that Alaska must manage its vast public resources, such as oil, gas, and fisheries.

And, those same citizens determined that our new state would be responsible for services typically provided by counties, such as courts, jails, child support, juvenile justice, roads, ferries, public safety, medical examiners, and airports. (In fact, Alaska is the largest operator of airports in the world.)

I think it’s worth noting here that a 2017 state analysis demonstrated that once “Alaska-unique” obligations and programs are accounted for, per capita state spending is within a few percentage points of the national average.

Despite the state’s extensive responsibilities, state jobs and departments have shrunk in the past four years since oil prices dropped. While the total state budget is higher than last year due to increased federal contributions (mostly for Alaskans’ health care coverage), overall state general fund spending for agencies, the university, Legislature, and judiciary actually dropped by more than $1.5 billion or 25% since 2015.

Since the per-barrel price of Alaska’s crude plummeted by more than half (landing at $49 per barrel in January 2015, after being at or above $100 per barrel for nearly four years), 2,900 state jobs have been eliminated (about 11% of the work force); university positions have dropped by 17%.

Can state government be downsized further? Yes, and it will. Can state government be made more efficient and effective? Yes, and it should. Agencies and the Legislature must be diligent in seeking efficiencies and implementing savings. But we must also be vigilant to not be penny-wise and pound-foolish, harming our future generations and the future of our state for short-term savings.

In this process, we also must be vigilant to not upend Alaska’s fragile economic recovery. Surely, a stable economy is at the top of our collective values list. Local chambers of commerce, banks, and economic development corporations have warned about the damage of sudden, big cuts. Business values stability. As legislators, we must, as well.

And, like a business, we must take care of our assets and protect our investments in order to support our core mission, as well as what we value — including the Alaska Permanent Fund, the permanent fund dividend, and public services — for the long haul. We are in a great debate about the future of our state. Tough decisions require digging deeply to evaluate spending and to ensure that funding is directed at that which, collectively, Alaskans value. And, we must remember: state spending, for the greater part, is an investment in Alaska’s economy, its people, and our future.

Rep. Andrea “Andi” Story is a freshman legislator from Juneau, representing House District 34.


Rep. Andrea “Andi” Story is a freshman legislator from Juneau, representing House District 34.


More in Opinion

Gov. Mike Dunleavy discusses his veto of a wide-ranging education bill during a press conference March 16 at the Alaska State Capitol. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Governor, please pay more attention to Alaskans

Our governor has been a busy guy on big issues.

A roll of “I voted” stickers sit at the Alaska Division of Elections office in Juneau in 2022. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)
Strengthening democracy: Native vote partners to boost voter registration

GOTNV and VPC are partnering to send over 4,000 voter registration applications this month to addresses and P.O. boxes all over Alaska

Priya Helweg is the acting regional director and executive officer for the Region 10 Office of Intergovernmental and External Affairs, Office of the Secretary, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Health and Human Services)
Happy Pride Month

This month is dedicated to acknowledging and uplifting the voices and experiences of the LGBTQI+ community

Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times
Former President Donald Trump arrives at Trump Tower after he was found guilty of all counts in his criminal trial in New York on May 30.
Opinion: Trump’s new fixers

Fixers from Alaska and elsewhere step in after guilty verdict

Ballot booths are set up inside Kenai City Hall on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Perspective from an election worker

Here is what I know about our Kenai Peninsula Borough election system

Apayauq Reitan, the first transgender woman to participate in the Iditarod, tells the House Education Committee on March 30, 2023, why she opposes a bill restricting transgender rights. (Mark Sabbatini/Juneau Empire file photo)
Opinion: The imaginary transgender sports crisis

House Bill 183 is a right-wing solution to a problem that doesn’t exist now and never will.

Sen. Jesse Bjorkman, a Nikiski Republican, speaks in favor of overriding a veto of Senate Bill 140 during floor debate of a joint session of the Alaska State Legislature on Monday, March 18, 2024. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Sen. Jesse Bjorkman: Session ends with budget, dividend and bills passed

Capitol Corner: Legislators report back from Juneau

The Alaska State Capitol. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire file photo)
Listen to PAs; support Senate Bill 115: Modernizing PA Practice in Alaska

Health care is rapidly evolving, demanding a more flexible and responsive system

Mount Redoubt can be seen across Cook Inlet from North Kenai Beach on Thursday, July 2, 2022. (Erin Thompson/Peninsula Clarion file photo)
Opinion: Hilcorp Alaska: Powering Southcentral Alaska — past, present and future

Hilcorp Alaska has and will continue to fully develop our Cook Inlet basin leasehold

Sen. Jesse Bjorkman, a Nikiski Republican, speaks in favor of overriding a veto of Senate Bill 140 during floor debate of a joint session of the Alaska State Legislature on Monday, March 18, 2024 (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Sen. Jesse Bjorkman: Collegiality matters

Capitol Corner: Legislators report back from Juneau

Juneau Empire file photo
Larry Persily.
Opinion: Alaska might as well embrace the past

The governor, legislators, municipal officials and business leaders are worried that the Railbelt will run short of natural gas before the end of the decade