Come January, it’s going to be a new ballgame in Juneau. The emergence of a Democrat-led majority caucus in the State House will be a pronounced shift from affairs in the last Legislature, in which Republicans led a commanding majority in both chambers. It’s the first time in decades that the House, Senate and governor’s office will be controlled by different factions — a Republican majority in the Senate, a mostly Democratic majority in the House and an independent governor. Given the fact that no one party can dictate affairs, it’s possible that lawmakers will dig in their heels and refuse to budge. But, for the good of the state, they should overcome that impulse and realize that a solution to the state’s budget mess is critical and that it’s the primary issue that their constituents want them to address. It’s time to find common ground.
As it has been the past two years, the chief priority in 2017 will remain the state budget deficit of more than $3 billion. In 2015 and 2016, despite an eagerness to cut the budget, the legislative majority didn’t take meaningful action on state revenue, leaving Gov. Bill Walker in the unenviable position of partially vetoing this year’s Alaska Permanent Fund dividend to slow the rate at which state savings were being depleted. Though the state Senate voted to pass a permanent fund earnings restructuring plan that would have put a big dent in the deficit, the proposal was a non-starter in the House.
Though opponents of the restructuring plan vowed revenge at the polls against state senators who had voted for the permanent fund earnings plan, the election results didn’t indicate their views carried the day. The Alaska Senate remained in the hands of the Republican majority caucus that voted for the plan, while the House saw a shakeup, leaving Democrats and moderate Republicans caucusing together in a new majority. It would be a bridge too far to say that the shifts occurred because of widespread public support for the governor’s budget plan, but it’s more likely that Alaska voters are fed up with the intransigence in the Legislature and the inability to fully address the state’s budget issues.
It would be easy to view the incoming House majority caucus with skepticism. Too often, Alaska Democrats have blamed the Republican majority caucuses for being partisan and inflexible, while displaying that same inflexibility themselves on many issues. For the sake of the state, however, we should give the new majority the benefit of the doubt until they give us reason to believe otherwise — it may well be that years in the minority have made the Democrats not eager to exact revenge for past slights but rather more keen on setting a less-divisive example for how the House can be run.
Time will tell if the new House majority caucus will bring needed change to Juneau or simply more of the same partisan bickering that has ill served Alaska for the past two years in the Legislature. Alaskans should hope for the former, as 2017 is the year when significant revenue reform isn’t just beneficial, it’s necessary to the state’s fiscal health.
— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Dec. 4, 2016