There’s no question the Alaska Legislature has a Herculean task on its hands: a budget deficit of about $3.5 billion, an amount so staggering that it’s difficult to grasp. No amount of cutting would be able to make the state budget sustainable, as legislative finance director David Teal reported to lawmakers last month. Even cutting every state employee would only close half of the gap. So it’s frustrating to watch the Legislature focus exclusively on cuts when it’s crystal clear the path to a balanced budget must also include additional revenue. It’s doubly frustrating when the cuts proposed by legislators would do little to close the deficit but would disproportionately harm many Alaskans.
Two particularly good examples of small-ticket items with a big payback for state residents that legislators have proposed putting to the ax are the Percent for Art program and funds for public broadcasting. Together, the average per-year spending on these items has totaled about $5 million for the past several years — about $4 million for public media and a little less than $1 million for the Percent for Art program. Together, they total a little more than a tenth of a percent of the state budget deficit, and 0.05 percent of estimated state spending last year. If the deficit were a football field, cutting all funds to the two programs would move the ball less than the length of a dollar bill toward the goal line.
It’s clear the programs have popular support among Alaskans. When the House Finance Committee cut funding for public broadcasting in half, an outpouring of public testimony in support of stations across Alaska led to the reinstatement of most funds before the House passed the operating budget. Mere weeks later, Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, rolled out cuts that zeroed out funding for public media altogether. Once again, citizen backlash was such that the majority of funds were restored, but public media still faces a 40 percent reduction in funding — far more than most areas of state government.
The state’s Percent for Art program directs that 1 percent of the funds spent on new capital construction go toward the purchase and permanent display of artwork in the new facility. In the past decade, that 1 percent has added up to about $9.1 million, but it’s important to note that since the percent comes as part of capital construction funds, it fluctuates depending on the state’s appetite for new buildings. Given the state budget crunch, it’s safe to say that the funds directed to capital construction, and thus the Percent for Art program, are likely to be near zero. That means the potential budget “gain” from cutting the program would also be near zero. It’s also important to be realistic: cutting the program isn’t likely to have a meaningful impact on the cost of building construction. If that 1 percent is taken away, bids aren’t likely to come in 1 percent lower — the funds will just be subsumed by other aspects of the project.
Both public media and the Percent for Art program have an outsized benefit to state residents. In some of the most remote parts of the state, Alaskans rely on public media not just for news and entertainment but also as the source of emergency communications about weather events and natural disasters. The Percent for Art program helps local artists maintain their craft and raise their profile in the art world, not to mention beautifying state schools and public buildings, which would otherwise be more nondescript and less representative of the Last Frontier.
The strong public support for both programs, the minimal cost savings by cutting them and their demonstrated benefit to Alaska residents suggest legislators’ repeated efforts to target them for cuts aren’t about responding to the budget crisis but rather about eliminating funding for things lawmakers don’t like or settling scores with their supporters. That’s not responsible governance.
If the Legislature is really looking to solve its budget problem, it cannot ignore the fact that cuts — particularly small, directed ones that do little to reduce state spending — will not bridge the gap, or even half of it. Alaska will not reach fiscal sustainability without finding ways to increase revenue as soon as possible. It’s time for the Legislature and Gov. Bill Walker to confront that reality honestly, educate the public and find real solutions.
— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,