Tim Bradner, one of Alaska’s most respected business and resource journalists, had an excellent column Feb. 15 in the Anchorage Daily News on how government investments in science (both past and present) have been crucial in reaping Alaska’s natural resource rewards, such as the North Slope oil and gas.
He said that today, a key agency that provides technical assistance to private companies is the state Division of Geology and Geophysics Services (DGGS), part of the Department of Natural Resources. Their investments in science, he noted, have provided technical assistance to private companies and encouraged them to invest in exploration and development. He added that beyond non-renewable resource development, good science is critical to programs within the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and other resource management agencies.
Bradner concluded that science requires knowledge — that it is like seed corn for the future.
Knowledge, as we know, arises from education — one of the areas being whacked hard by Gov. Dunleavy’s heavy budget axe. With Alaska’s oil wealth, we should already have one of the finest K-12 and university education systems in America. But recent studies reveal we remain woefully low on the nation’s public education performance ladder.
We’ve heard the clarion rant: “Throwing money at education won’t improve it.” Perhaps not, but reforming education and adapting it for the 21st century requires considerable investment; and recruiting good teachers and other education professionals to a far-flung place such as Alaska requires incentives such as competitive pay, benefits, with a sound retirement program.
It should be obvious to all that education is a society’s foundation. Without an educated citizenry, economies will become unsustainable and eventually crumble. And this situation is becoming more critical with advances in technology and the emergence of an interdependent, global economy. We see it in many cities across the Lower 48 and we’re seeing it here: increased homelessness, unemployment and crime. Instead of making education one of our highest priorities to prepare citizens for the challenges of the century, we hire more police and judges and have more people in prison than ever before. Because we have gotten so far beyond the curve in education, our social costs have increased dramatically.
Education is essential if we wish our nation to have a middle class, and not simply a “have and have not” population, which has occurred in many countries. Every school in Alaska and across the U.S. should be as good as the best school; and that includes a greater emphasis on vocational programs. That might require increasing taxes, and in Alaska’s case, adding a new general revenue stream such as a state sales tax.
Many lawmakers, however, who are only concerned about their own re-election, are as frightened of the “T” word as someone carrying nitroglycerin in the back of their car. Promising people more money is significantly more popular than taking it away in taxes, as we learned from the last state election.
In a recent Anchorage Daily News column, Larry Persily, a well-known journalist who has had extensive budget experience at both state and federal levels, wrote that Alaskans are delusional if they think they can solve the state’s budget crisis without a new revenue stream. And we have heard similarly from others, including the University of Alaska Institute for Social and Economic Research.
A state sales tax would generate hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue and capture tourist spending. And for Bush Alaska, the tax on certain items such as food, fuel and medicine, could be indexed to prevent hardship. Locally, in Anchorage for example, property owners have been bearing the brunt of taxation way too long.
I realize that reaching a consensus among Alaska’s highly transient population is tantamount to herding cats. But hopefully, our current Legislature will take a serious and deliberative look at the governor’s proposed 2019-2020 budget — which includes paying people large PFDs, ultimately robbing future generations — and agree that education is the key to our future. To reiterate Bradner’s comment: “Knowledge is seed corn. Plant it and reap the bounty. Don’t plant it and go hungry.”
A lifetime Alaskan, Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River.
• By Frank E. Baker