What others say: Lawmakers right to focus on fiscal matters, but tough choices ahead

  • Tuesday, February 16, 2016 5:33pm
  • Opinion

The Alaska House of Representatives made a big decision last week by clearing the decks of all non-budget-related legislation, opting to only consider fiscal items until the body passes an operating budget for the state. It’s an unprecedented step, especially so early in the legislative session, but one warranted by the massive $4 billion budget hole facing the Legislature and Gov. Bill Walker. Opting to work solely on the budget could be a fruitful step toward a fiscal solution for the state — if legislators work together and make the tough choices necessary.

The plan to focus solely on the budget was that of Rep. Bryce Edgmon, a Democrat from Dillingham who caucuses with the Republican-led majority. Most of those who spoke about it before the measure passed the House by a 38-1 vote mentioned that fixing the state’s broken budget is the primary expectation Alaskans have of the Legislature this session.

Legislators are correct to think the public’s chief concern is the budget, and there’s reason to believe state lawmakers are earnest in their decision to focus on fiscal issues. But that doesn’t change the fact that among members of the public and the Legislature alike, there are great differences in people’s opinions on what should be done to fix Alaska’s budget mess. Some Alaskans, and possibly even some legislators, still cling to the hope that it’s possible to achieve a more or less balanced budget through cuts alone. Unfortunately, this is impossible.

Others want to see all possible cutting done before any revenue measures are advanced, a position that would be easier to swallow if the legislators in this position could specify how much cutting they believe is possible or necessary (so far, none have made even general statements about their desired level of cuts or their targets). And others want to see all manner of revenue mechanisms — plans that would turn the Alaska Permanent Fund into an endowment, the return of the state income tax, sales tax, removal of oil tax credits, hikes on petroleum production taxes, higher sin taxes, a state lottery and other measures.

Ultimately, it will take some blend of all these approaches to fix the state’s fiscal situation. But so far, few — especially in the House — have been keen to put their necks out and propose a meaningful, targeted set of cuts or specify a package of revenue measures that would return the ship of state to an even keel. If legislators remain as bashful about proposing fiscal solutions when focusing solely on the budget as they have been up to this point, the only real effect Rep. Edgmon’s measure will have had is to halt the work being done on non-budget-related items.

Also a potential concern is the definition of what qualifies a bill as directly related to the budget or new revenue. It seems a simple thing, but the Legislature has had issues in past years with majority caucus leadership flexing its muscle, especially during focused special sessions, refusing to consider minority bills that they declare outside the scope of the session. The ability to define terms is powerful; the majority shouldn’t use it as a cudgel.

But there’s hope both the majority and minority are earnest in their desire to work with one another on the budget and do what’s right for the state. There has even been some discussion of a Caucus of the Whole, which would put all members on equal footing in discussing where to go from here. Given that last year, the schism between the majority and minority caucuses in the house stalled progress on the budget and other items, forcing two special sessions, anything that would help bridge that divide and keep members talking to one another has to be viewed as a positive.

The decision by the House to focus solely on fiscal matters until the state operating budget is taken care of was a good one, but that decision on its own is no guarantee the state’s fiscal issues will be solved faster or at all. What’s required now is that legislators step forward and take the political risk of putting forth potential solutions for their colleagues and the public to debate.

— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,

Feb. 14

More in Opinion

A roll of “I voted” stickers sit at the Alaska Division of Elections office in Juneau in 2022. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)
Strengthening democracy: Native vote partners to boost voter registration

GOTNV and VPC are partnering to send over 4,000 voter registration applications this month to addresses and P.O. boxes all over Alaska

Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times
Former President Donald Trump arrives at Trump Tower after he was found guilty of all counts in his criminal trial in New York on May 30.
Opinion: Trump’s new fixers

Fixers from Alaska and elsewhere step in after guilty verdict

Ballot booths are set up inside Kenai City Hall on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Perspective from an election worker

Here is what I know about our Kenai Peninsula Borough election system

Apayauq Reitan, the first transgender woman to participate in the Iditarod, tells the House Education Committee on March 30, 2023, why she opposes a bill restricting transgender rights. (Mark Sabbatini/Juneau Empire file photo)
Opinion: The imaginary transgender sports crisis

House Bill 183 is a right-wing solution to a problem that doesn’t exist now and never will.

Sen. Jesse Bjorkman, a Nikiski Republican, speaks in favor of overriding a veto of Senate Bill 140 during floor debate of a joint session of the Alaska State Legislature on Monday, March 18, 2024. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Sen. Jesse Bjorkman: Session ends with budget, dividend and bills passed

Capitol Corner: Legislators report back from Juneau

The Alaska State Capitol. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire file photo)
Listen to PAs; support Senate Bill 115: Modernizing PA Practice in Alaska

Health care is rapidly evolving, demanding a more flexible and responsive system

Mount Redoubt can be seen across Cook Inlet from North Kenai Beach on Thursday, July 2, 2022. (Erin Thompson/Peninsula Clarion file photo)
Opinion: Hilcorp Alaska: Powering Southcentral Alaska — past, present and future

Hilcorp Alaska has and will continue to fully develop our Cook Inlet basin leasehold

Sen. Jesse Bjorkman, a Nikiski Republican, speaks in favor of overriding a veto of Senate Bill 140 during floor debate of a joint session of the Alaska State Legislature on Monday, March 18, 2024 (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Sen. Jesse Bjorkman: Collegiality matters

Capitol Corner: Legislators report back from Juneau

Juneau Empire file photo
Larry Persily.
Opinion: Alaska might as well embrace the past

The governor, legislators, municipal officials and business leaders are worried that the Railbelt will run short of natural gas before the end of the decade

The Alaska State Capitol on March 1. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Opinion: Physicians oppose Alaska Senate Bill 115 — Independent Practice for PAs

Alaskans don’t want access to just any health care, they want access to high quality care

Norm McDonald is the deputy director of Fire Protection for the Alaska Division of Forestry & Fire Protection. (Photo courtesy Bureau of Land Management Alaska Fire Service)
The Swan Lake Fire can be seen from above on Monday, Aug. 26, 2019, on the Kenai Peninsula, Alaska. (Photo courtesy Alaska Wildland Fire Information)
Opinion: This wildfire prevention month, reflect on ways to protect each other and our communities from wildfire

Alaskans saw what happened in Canada last year, and they know it can happen here too