What others say: Little by little, reduced services highlight state’s serious budget problem

  • Tuesday, November 24, 2015 4:18pm
  • Opinion

An unsettling notice arrived from the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities just before 7 p.m. Thursday. It warned of difficult driving conditions on a 38-mile stretch of the Parks Highway in the area of Broad Pass and southward.

A winter storm had arrived and snow was accumulating on the highway. Driving through the night and the morning was not advised, according to the DOT.

Why? Because the DOT no longer has sufficient funds to plow the highway as usual. This was the language contained in that DOT notice: “Current budget restrictions have limited snowplowing operations on the Parks Highway. Crews will begin clearing roadways tomorrow morning … “

The Parks Highway is the main north-south highway in Alaska. It is of particular importance to Fairbanks, sitting alone at the northern end of the route and reliant on it for access to Anchorage. In this particular winter incident, it turns out the snowfall was worse than anticipated and the DOT reversed course and brought in crews on overtime to clear the roadway.

But do we really want one of our main highways subjected to reduced snowplowing at any time? The Parks Highway is heavily traveled by tractor-trailers, which spray clouds of new-fallen snow behind them and further obscure visibility. Winter driving on Alaska highways can be difficult in general; reducing the amount of snowplowing only makes it worse.

The DOT announced in late September it was cutting back on snowplowing and winter road maintenance in the face of the state’s projected $3.7 billion budget deficit for the current fiscal year. The Legislature had cut the department’s funding 11 percent, with most of that having to come in maintenance and operations. The DOT’s northern region office eliminated 15 positions, converted 14 full-time positions to seasonal jobs, reduced equipment spending by about $1 million, and cut almost all of its overtime budget.

The result, DOT officials warned, would be reduced and less-timely service.

“This will really impact us when we have storms,” the department’s northern region spokeswoman said at the time. “We won’t have the flexibility to respond in the way we have in the past.”

But who or what is to blame for this budget reduction? The easy answer is to point to the price of oil, which has tumbled precipitously and shows little sign of returning to its $100 per barrel levels. The price of a barrel of North Slope crude was $42.04 on Wednesday, down from $75.40 on the same date in 2014 and $101.22 in 2013.

The price of oil isn’t to blame, however. The collapse in the price of oil is merely a circumstance that must be handled. Life is full of circumstances to be dealt with, whether for each of us as individuals, for businesses or for governments.

The real answer is DOT has a budget problem because Alaskans have allowed it to have a budget problem.

Certainly the DOT budget, like that of any state department, can be scrutinized for possible waste. But citing the potential for waste as a reason to not provide sufficient funds for essential services can only be done for so many years before the department’s budget reaches a point at which there isn’t much left to eliminate. Perhaps the DOT is at that point now.

To some extent, the Alaska public is responsible for situations such as the delayed plowing of the Parks Highway and other routes because too many of our political leaders in Juneau have been pilloried for suggesting Alaskans actually pay toward the cost of operating the government that provides the services. A legislator who suggests using some of the earnings of the Alaska Permanent Fund to pay for government services gets branded as someone who wants to “raid the permanent fund.” That poor legislator then ends up with an election opponent who vows to “protect the permanent fund.”

The same goes for candidates who suggest we might have to have a sales tax or a personal income tax and who point out that Alaska simply cannot cut its way to a balanced budget.

So the only way to make Alaskans understand the gravity of the budget situation, apparently, is to let them suffer the reduced services. It isn’t just the DOT that is scaling back: For example, the district attorney’s office in Barrow has closed and its 800 annual cases have been transferred to the Fairbanks office, and the state courthouse in Fairbanks is expanding its holiday closures.

It’s past time for Alaskans to wake up to the seriousness of the budget problem and to listen when those too-few courageous political leaders dare to speak the truth.

— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,

Nov. 22

More in Opinion

This image available under the Creative Commons license shows the outline of the state of Alaska filled with the pattern of the state flag.
Opinion: Old models of development are not sustainable for Alaska

Sustainability means investing in keeping Alaska as healthy as possible.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy unveils proposals to offer public school teachers annual retention bonuses and enact policies restricting discussion of sex and gender in education during a news conference in Anchorage. (Screenshot)
Opinion: As a father and a grandfather, I believe the governor’s proposed laws are anti-family

Now, the discrimination sword is pointing to our gay and transgender friends and families.

Kenai Peninsula Education Association President Nathan Erfurth works in his office on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021, in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Voices of the Peninsula: Now is the time to invest in Kenai Peninsula students

Parents, educators and community members addressed the potential budget cuts with a clear message.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy holds a press conference at the Capitol on Tuesday, April 9, 2019. (Juneau Empire file photo)
Opinion: An accurate portrayal of parental rights isn’t controversial

Affirming and defining parental rights is a matter of respect for the relationship between parent and child

Opinion: When the state values bigotry over the lives of queer kids

It has been a long, difficult week for queer and trans Alaskans like me.

Dr. Sarah Spencer. (Photo by Maureen Todd and courtesy of Dr. Sarah Spencer)
Voices of the Peninsula: Let’s bring opioid addiction treatment to the Alaskans who need it most

This incredibly effective and safe medication has the potential to dramatically increase access to treatment

Unsplash / Louis Velazquez
Opinion: Fish, family and freedom… from Big Oil

“Ultimate investment in the status quo” is not what I voted for.

An orphaned moose calf reared by the author is seen in 1970. (Stephen F. Stringham/courtesy photo)
Voices of the Peninsula: Maximizing moose productivity on the Kenai Peninsula

Maximum isn’t necessarily optimum, as cattle ranchers learned long ago.

(Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: The time has come to stop Eastman’s willful and wanton damage

God in the Bible makes it clear that we are to care for the vulnerable among us.

Caribou graze on the greening tundra of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Alaska in June, 2001. (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: AIDEA’s $20 million-and-growing investment looks like a bad bet

Not producing in ANWR could probably generate a lot of money for Alaska.

A fisher holds a reel on the Kenai River near Soldotna on June 30, 2021. (Photo by Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Voices of the Peninsula: King salmon closures long overdue

Returns have progressively gone downhill since the early run was closed in June 2012

(Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: Fixing legislative salaries and per diem

The state Senate was right to unanimously reject giving a 20% pay… Continue reading