Before last week, Alaskans knew a government shutdown would be bad for the state. Last week, they found out how bad. As the Legislature continued to dicker about a fiscal solution with little sign of progress, leaders of state departments on Thursday released statements explaining the likely consequence of a shutdown. The list of services affected is long and the agencies affected are broad. If legislators don’t have a budget in place before July 1, thousands of state employees — and hundreds of thousands of Alaskans and visitors relying on state services — will suffer for their inaction. It’s time to make a deal.
Gov. Bill Walker tried to get the week started with a conciliatory tone, rolling out a compromise between the Senate and House approaches to closing the state’s multibillion-dollar fiscal gap. The attempt at finding middle ground lasted less than a day, with members of the bipartisan House majority caucus declaring the governor’s approach dead on arrival. It’s true that the governor’s compromise favored the Senate on more items than the House — it adopted the House’s operating budget but took the Senate’s positions on several other items, such as restructuring of the Alaska Permanent Fund’s earnings and the bulk of oil tax issues. Still, dismissing the governor’s proposal out of hand as House leaders did was unhelpful in furthering discussion that could lead to a compromise.
You don’t have to look far to see where a government shutdown is likely to affect you. All payments to state vendors and leaseholders could stop, for instance. Among other things, this would affect and potentially bring to a halt construction projects on roads and buildings across the state. Workers for contractors wouldn’t get paid and the state might have to forfeit millions of dollars in federal matching funds for the projects. The state’s 10 ferries, busy hauling residents and visitors along the state’s coast, would be threatened with shutdown, potentially stranding thousands far from home and creating huge logistical headaches. And the Department of Fish and Game, unable to monitor fisheries, might have to institute emergency closures, threatening one of the state’s biggest industries in coastal communities.
Other state functions would also likely cease for the duration of the shutdown. The Department of Motor Vehicles likely wouldn’t be able to issue driver’s licenses and vehicle registrations. The Bureau of Vital Statistics might not be able to process marriage licenses.
And other consequences would inflict more pain on Alaska’s reeling economy. State law requires that employees cash in all personal leave in the event of a shutdown, meaning an immediate $150 million payout from state savings to highly skilled workers who might be forced to look for jobs elsewhere to feed their families. And a shutdown would almost certainly lead to a downgrade in the state’s bond rating, making it substantially more expensive for Alaska to borrow money and driving up the cost of doing business.
A shutdown is not an option. A compromise and a plan to balance the state budget are absolute necessities before July 1. Holding state employees and other Alaskans hostage as they consider the impacts to themselves and their families is unconscionable. The right time to pass a budget was more than a month ago. The second-best time is today. Legislators need to knuckle down and pass a plan.
— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,