For most of us, 121 days is a decent length of time. It’s about the length of an Interior summer, for instance, which most of us would like to see longer but which is nonetheless sufficient to tide us through the winter. It’s more days than President Donald Trump has been in office. But for Alaska’s Legislature, it hasn’t been enough time to come to a budget solution, despite two previous years to come to grips with the problem. The stances of the House and Senate, in fact, haven’t changed appreciably since about the first month of the session. And although Alaska’s multibillion-dollar budget deficit is a big, serious problem that requires substantial time and effort to fix, it’s hard to make the argument that all the time in the past 121 days has been productively spent.
The philosophical difference between the budget approaches of the House and Senate majority caucuses has been apparent for months. In the House, a Democrat-led bipartisan majority caucus aims to bring the budget close to balance and preserve current levels of state services. To do so, they have two revenue planks. One would institute a restructuring of the Alaska Permanent Fund’s earnings, diverting a portion to pay for state services and using the rest to pay out dividend checks to residents. The other would institute an income tax that would aim to defray costs of some of Alaska’s biggest state-funded services, such as K-12 education and the University of Alaska. A state ban on dedicated funds would prevent the tax receipts from being legally bound to a particular purpose, but it stands to reason that tax revenue would take pressure off other areas of the budget.
The Republican Senate majority caucus, by comparison, isn’t interested in revenue solutions beyond what would be generated by the permanent fund earnings restructuring plan. Its plan for the budget, promoted by caucus leaders such as Senate President Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, would spend considerably more from savings while pushing for substantial cuts in state spending, most of which would necessarily come from the big-ticket expenses the House plan would fund via a tax: K-12 education and the University of Alaska. There’s no question the planned cuts would be viewed negatively by many Alaskans. The education cuts in this year’s pending budget have been met with stiff opposition, as were proposed changes to university sports and aspects of the budget-conscious Strategic Pathways plan developed by UA President Jim Johnsen.
These positions have been public knowledge for months. Yet there has been no substantial progress toward agreement on a budget, with legislators in both chambers choosing to instead exchange salvos in public statements to persuade Alaskans that theirs is the more responsible plan. Real progress toward any kind of compromise or joint solution has been scant.
For three years running, the voter-approved 90-day session — which, admittedly, is a brief amount of time to deal with a multibillion-dollar budget shortfall — has been entirely ignored as the Legislature squeezes out every day of the 121-day allowance under the Alaska Constitution and more. As legislators once again prepare to go into overtime, they should work not only with urgency but also with the knowledge that the state cannot afford further delay in passing a fiscal plan that incorporates new revenue and charts a course to a balanced budget. The public should press them to act in the state’s best interest.
— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,