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,