Just how much is the public’s dollar worth?
With the Alaska Legislature in the throes of a budget debate, and municipal government employees beginning their own budget discussions, questions about just what government should pay for — and how to cover those costs — are being vigorously debated.
When government coffers are flush, as they had been when the price of oil was more than $100 per barrel, the answers to those questions were a little easier to come by. Budget priorities of public safety, infrastructure and education could include things such as athletic facilities and community centers.
But when government funding is tight, as is the case this year, those questions are harder to answer. The Alaska House recently passed an operating budget with severe cuts. Instead of constituents asking what’s in it for us, we find ourselves concerned about what we might lose.
Anxiety over cuts has trickled down to the local level, particularly the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, as official try to figure out how to cover a budget shortfall exacerbated by state cuts.
The budgeting challenge in Alaska comes with a state revenue stream almost exclusively dependent on oil revenue. Despite the volatility of the price of oil, Alaskans remain reluctant to tap other sources of revenue to potentially stabilize the long-term fiscal outlook. That would mean instituting a state income or sales tax, or implementing some mechanism to use some of the earning from the Alaska Permanent Fund. That’s just not going to happen.
Instead, Alaska has chosen to keep all its eggs in the oil revenue basket and live with the instability that comes with a boom or bust economy.
The current scrutiny of government spending should serve as a reminder to Alaskans of just how valuable public dollars are, not because we need a lesson in belt-tightening, but because we need to realize just how much services provided by our government are worth. . The cuts being considered are going to hurt. Things like road maintenance and well-run schools aren’t free. Alaskans have high expectations for services, but generally speaking, we’ve grown accustomed to having someone else pick up the tab.
Alaska has enough resources to weather the current fiscal storm — the Legislature had the foresight to replenish state savings when oil prices spiked a few years ago.
In the meantime, if Alaskans can develop a better appreciation for and understanding of what we get for our public dollars, so much the better.