Voices of Alaska: Fiscal gap threatens public safety

Alaskans have been hearing a great deal about crime and public safety in the news lately. Some have questioned whether these recent trends are caused by Senate Bill 91. The experts tell us that it’s simply too soon to know whether SB 91 is related to the spike in crime. It is still being phased in with the first parts starting in July of last year and the last provision, which is a major pretrial monitoring program, launching in January of next year. However, the Legislature isn’t waiting to act on the provisions of SB 91 that need to be fixed.

The Alaska House of Representatives is hearing Senate Bill 54 put forward by Gov. Bill Walker, which repeals the parts of SB 91 that have been especially controversial and that the Department of Law believes need to be fixed. The Alaska House Majority Coalition is committed to passing it swiftly so that Alaskans can gain some sense of relief. Alaskans’ safety is our top priority.

However, I am concerned that all the discussion about SB 91 is keeping us from seeing another problem that has an even larger impact on crime than criminal justice reform — our $2.5 billion fiscal gap.

A respected law enforcement leader I spoke with recently shared that he thinks our fiscal situation is creating a lot of anxiety for Alaskans. I agree. People are worried about whether they will still have a job in a year. They are worried about whether they can sell their house or whether their house — the largest asset most of us own — will retain its value and ensure their financial security.

We also know that our fiscal situation is having an impact on crime. Previous legislatures have cut $3.9 million from the Department of Law Criminal Division’s budget over the last three years even though its workload is increasing due to the opioid epidemic. Our courts are closed Friday afternoons, meaning that there are four fewer hours each week to process an increasing number of crimes. Because of these cuts, we have 42 fewer staffers in the Department of Law and 7,000 fewer prosecutions in the last three years. That is not the right way to keep the public safe.

So, while it’s important that we pass SB 54, it’s vitally important that we finally put this fiscal situation to rest.

Previous legislatures have failed to pass a comprehensive fiscal plan that ensures we can pay for our prosecutors, judges, law enforcement officers, teachers, road maintenance crews and other essential services we all rely on. For three years, Alaskans have been waiting on pins and needles for their elected officials to see the light of day and realize that we need a sustainable fiscal plan that pays for these services regardless of the price of oil.

The Alaska House Majority Coalition passed a comprehensive fiscal plan last April that would have ensured a dividend of $1,100 or more, and put Alaska on a strong, stable fiscal footing. This is an essential step toward properly funding public safety efforts that have been starved by recent bare-bones budgets. I was extremely disappointed that the Alaska Senate refused to properly consider our plan. That action has kept in place a level of fiscal uncertainty that is endangering our economy and the jobs of thousands of hardworking Alaskans.

We know that our colleagues in the Republican-led Senate majority have other ideas about how to fill our deficit, but I remain hopeful that the size and scope of our fiscal challenges will bring them to the table to discuss solutions. We must settle Alaska’s fiscal situation once and for all — our safety is at stake and Alaskans can’t wait any longer.

Ivy Spohnholz represents Anchorage in the Alaska State Legislature’s House of Representatives.

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