Remember when you were a kid sitting at the dinner table, and you couldn’t be excused until you ate your vegetables? You pushed them around on your plate, maybe tried to hide some under the mashed potatoes, or slip them to the dog, but you knew eventually you were going to have to take a bite.
The Alaska Legislature has been playing with its vegetables for a year now, and with another special session on the horizon, Gov. Bill Walker appears determined to keep them at the table for as long as it takes. He’s even talking about withholding dessert — the Juneau Empire on Thursday reported that Gov. Walker is considering a veto of the appropriation for Alaska Permanent Fund dividends.
The vegetables in this analogy are any measures that would make any significant dent in the state budget deficit. While the Legislature did pass an operating budget, the majority of the funding comes from a $3 billion-plus draw on the Constitutional Budget Reserve, one of the state’s main savings accounts. Taking such a big draw this year ensures that next year, there will not be enough left to cover the projected deficit.
The cornerstone of Gov. Walker’s plan to address the deficit is Senate Bill 128, which would in essence turn the Permanent Fund into an endowment. An annual draw would be split between state government operations and dividends for Alaska residents. The Senate passed the measure by a 14-5 vote, but it failed to make it out of the House Finance committee. Opponents of the measure cite its impact on the dividend — which would be capped at $1,000 for the next two years.
Quite frankly, a guaranteed dividend check should be the last thing lawmakers are worrying about — not when Alaska is faced with billions in deficit spending. Legislators keep making excuses — before we address the Permanent Fund, they say, we need to look at all these other things — yet most of the other revenue options presented by Walker have gone untouched.
It has been well established that no single measure is enough to close the fiscal gap. Cuts alone won’t balance the budget, and a combination of new revenue options are needed just to make the state’s savings last as long as possible. Even SB 128 is only a part of the solution, though at $1.5 billion, it would be a big part.
Yet there are some lawmakers still sitting at the table, stubbornly refusing to even take one bite.
Right now, still has some options as to how it addresses the fiscal situation. Enacting the biggest piece of the plan now gives lawmakers some wiggle room in 2017 as they try to balance cuts with new taxes.
Failure to take any action now leaves the state painted into a fiscal corner. With the Constitutional Budget Reserve drawn down, lawmakers will be forced to look to other sources to pay for government — and there’s only one obvious option in that situation. Lawmakers can choose to make a decision now, or they can let that decision be made for them.
Either way, as much as no one wants to do it, it’s time for the Legislature to eat its vegetables.