Coming home to Nikiski, however briefly during the legislative session, my friends and neighbors all asked me the same question: What’s going on?
Today, that’s changed to: what happened?
The answers differ depending on who you speak with. My goal in writing this is to lay it out straight, not try and spin, but to simply inform. I trust you will come to your own conclusions like you trust me to go to Juneau and handle business there.
Two years ago, when this Legislature and new Governor were seated, we faced oil prices below $30 per barrel, bills coming due on retirement, tax credits for the resource sector, implementing the Affordable Care Act, and negotiations between the State’s largest labor unions and a new Administration.
The last economic downturn shook our community and the entire state. People were leaving the keys to their homes in the front door and hitting the road. None of us want Alaska to get back to that point.
So what did we do? We committed to cutting the budget. It’s not as simple as it sounds, despite what you may have read or heard. I truly wish it were. The budget is our Constitutional obligation, the only thing we have to do. The State Operating Budget is a sometimes confusing matrix of transactions, personnel control numbers for employees and fund transfers that are complex and intimidating to most people. The budget pays for everything you think of when you think of state services: K-12 education, roads, some medical services, public safety, fish and game, troopers, etc.
Our House Majority Caucus, who put their trust in me to serve as Speaker of the House, committed to listening to Alaskans. We have and will continue to do so. Door-to-door throughout the state, our members heard from neighbors that before being asked to give any of their hard-earned dollars to pay for government, we first had to deliver cuts. So we cut. Historically.
Twice. In two years, this Legislature cut the budget nearly 20-percent. That’s no easy feat. We’re not done. We’ll transition from deep reviews and trimming here and there, to having hard conversations about the role and structure of government next year. We have no choice. We all have to share in the process. No group, economic sector or government agency will go unchecked. No legislator is left out of the process either, which is obvious when you look at the debate on the bills.
Make no mistake, our philosophical differences on government, how to deliver which services, led to the extra time it took both years to negotiate a compromise with the Democratic Minority in the House. It wasn’t a staring contest or stand-off. We held good-faith negotiations. In the end, we didn’t cut as much as last year, $852 million in total funds versus more than $900 million two years ago. That was all we could agree on this year.
I respect the House Minority Leader, Chris Tuck of Anchorage. We held weekly meetings. In many ways, his job in bringing his diverse democrats together was more challenging than my own, working with our House Majority leadership team. Many may not know that the Majority Caucus is bipartisan. We stretch from the Arctic Coast, to the Bering Coast, to the Gulf of Alaska, and down the Southeast panhandle. Our Caucus comprises every region of the state and political philosophy in the book, from absolute constitutionalists, libertarians, conservatives, liberals, moderates, and pro-business and pro-consumer capitalists. I love our uniquely Alaskan diversity.
Leadership is easy when our State’s financial times are good. We’ve built this state. We’ve saved when oil prices were high, so today we can afford to glide down to a sustainable level of government.
When times are tough, like today, the job is more difficult. The impact of our choices have more meaning and consequences. We tackled significant, historic reforms. We’ve reformed Medicaid, whose yearly increases could destroy our budget. We’ve refocused dollars in courts and corrections on criminal justice re-investment, in order to hopefully bring down our public safety, legal and corrections costs. We’ve stopped our retirement system liabilities from sky-rocketing.
The budget deficit has simply swallowed up the debate. The public perception of our work has led to the dialogues we’re having today. We cannot and will not please everyone. Some want deeper cuts. Some want every program and position funded and taxes on businesses and individuals. Some want us to restructure and repurpose the Alaska Permanent Fund. The problem is that deep.
We understand the scope, cause and ways to deal with the budget deficit. We have to build a consensus, not say ‘my way or the highway’ or ‘do everything now.’ We must continue to take a prudent, respectful, inclusive approach. Those who know me know that’s my style.
We’re on our way to keeping Alaska the great place we all have come to know and love, a place we want to raise our families and build our lives.
However, we won’t get there with finger-pointing, drawing lines in the sand, or trying to place blame and tear each other down. It’s hard work to compromise and lower costs in a system that’s only designed to incrementally grow. Yet, we’ve done so and will continue to do so, delivering on the trust Alaskans have placed in us in sending us to Juneau. Hard work isn’t always pretty, and it’s usually frustrating. I share in your frustrations. We’re listening. We’re working.
Thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts and reasons. I look forward to an end to the special session and continuing the dialogue with you all over the summer, and hopefully going back to Juneau next year to keep solving our state’s problems.
Mike Chenault represents Nikiski and the rural Kenai Peninsula’s House District 29. He’s currently in his 4th term as Speaker of the House and 8th term overall. Prior to that, he served on the Kenai Peninsula School Board and as President of the North Peninsula Chamber of Commerce. The views expressed are his own.