Ten thousand members of the Alaska workforce stand to be laid off in three and a half weeks. But you’d never know it from watching the Legislature during the past several days. While there has been plenty of rhetoric and attempts to direct blame, real discussions of finding a budget compromise that would keep the state running past July 1 were seemingly nonexistent in the seven days following Fairbanks Sen. Pete Kelly’s dismantling of the compromise crafted by the House majority and minority caucuses.
In 24 days and counting, the Alaska government will shut down. This is unacceptable.
With no apparent sense of urgency, the Senate and House gaveled in for minutes-long technical sessions on Friday, did no business and adjourned until Monday afternoon. While some hoped discussion would continue through the weekend in the conference committee tasked with resolving the discrepancies between budgets passed by the House and Senate, those hopes were also dashed in short order. Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake, who co-chairs the conference committee, announced shortly after the House and Senate recessed for the weekend that the committee wouldn’t meet until Monday morning. With thousands of state employees unsure whether they will be able to afford living expenses after the end of the month, the budget crisis apparently doesn’t merit working weekends for members of the Legislature.
What’s most infuriating about the impasse over the budget is that there’s so little monetary difference between the budgets passed by the House and Senate. After being handed a compromise budget passed in the House, Sen. Kelly removed about $30 million in compromise items such as funding for state worker cost-of-living adjustments, senior benefits, early education and the Alaska Marine Highway System. He also shifted about $16 million in money slated to maintain education formula funding levels to be a one-time allocation instead. That sum is equal to a little more than half a percent of the total budget. In the event of a government shutdown, the required leave payouts to state employees would likely be equal to or greater than the entire disputed amount — and that’s without accounting for the massive amount of other damage a shutdown would incur upon Alaska.
That damage would be severe and widespread. Alaska’s unemployment rate would surge from its current 6.7 percent to more than 9 percent, the highest of any state in the U.S. Inevitably, many state employees laid off from their jobs would choose to find other employment either in Alaska or Outside, extending the period of recovery for the state long after passage of a budget, as workers would have to be hired for vacant positions and trained. The state’s credit rating would be in serious danger of a downgrade, as ratings agencies tend to view government inability to do business as a negative.
But the greatest impact on Alaska from a shutdown would likely be felt by Alaskans and those visiting the state. When state ferries shut down July 1 and strand hundreds of state residents and tourists along the marine highway, Alaska’s predicament would turn from a local frustration to a national laughingstock. State workers living paycheck-to-paycheck would have difficult decisions to make about housing, food and finding employment — after all, the Legislature’s inability to pass a budget in a full session and two special sessions wouldn’t exactly inspire confidence in their ability to make a deal quickly.
The budget situation is bad, and Alaskans’ faith in their government is already damaged. A shutdown would be catastrophic. For the good of the state and its people, legislators must acknowledge the urgency and seriousness of the situation facing Alaska and hammer out a budget deal.
We’re 24 days from the brink. There’s no more time for days off.
— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,