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An Alaska We Can Believe In: The Budget Debate
I’d like to say I’m involved in some sort of amazingly heroic battle to protect the world. That would be very cool. People like that end up on posters and playing cards. Maybe they get their own emoji, or even a reality TV show.
But I don’t get to do that. I do get to battle for what I think is right, and seek principled consensus. The consensus I want seeks to avoid continued school cuts, cuts to seniors and those battling disabilities, continued major cuts to our university, and cuts to needed support for innocent children who have been victims of child abuse and neglect. I’ll cut waste. I won’t turn my head from those who deserve a hand, or from the schools that are educating this and the next generation.
With a $2.6 billion deficit, caused in large part by plummeting oil prices, and $3.4 billion in budget cuts since 2013, we can’t kick the can down the road. I said that last year, and now we’re running out of time – and savings. Just cutting isn’t a solution. We are now at the second lowest per capita budget (adjusted for inflation) in 42 years, and the Senate’s cuts are not to waste, but largely to things that matter to people.
My colleagues in the Senate have proposed major cuts to schools, to support for abused and neglected children, to the university, and to other things I don’t consider waste. Our Alaska House Majority Coalition, like the Governor, proposed cuts that we felt were responsible and didn’t do damage to people or the economy. Here is where we, and the Senate, with a much more conservative philosophy, are. In the end we all have to find agreement and work together.
Please chime in. And I’ll keep working towards principled consensus and a plan that both protects Alaska and moves Alaska out of its current job-shedding recession.
Here is a summary of where we are. I hope you’ll write letters to the editor and to legislators. You can call 269-0111 to get legislator e-mail addresses.
As always, call if we can help. As always, my staff Laura, Molly and Claire, and I, are working for what we, and I think you, believe in. Please feel free to share this e-mail with those you know who care about these issues!
The debate in Juneau is about what kind of state we want to live in. I want an Alaska we can all believe in, not one where many of our neighbors are talking about leaving.
I think our House Majority Coalition, and the GOP-led Senate, with divergent views, can find common ground. Your views matter. I believe legislators will listen if you speak up. Here’s where we are today.
On one side, our GOP-led Senate is standing by major additional cuts to public education and our university. These cuts also hit deserved support for Alaska’s abused and neglected children, and seniors and Alaskans born with disabilities who battle every day for a life with dignity. Alaska is already facing a dwindling ability to battle and prevent crime with inadequate troopers, prosecutors and police. That’s not an Alaska I believe in.
Then there’s the economy and the recession and the job losses we are facing. Our neighbors are talking about leaving Alaska. They see little commitment to the schools they want for their children, or to fixing the economy their businesses rely on.
According to the University of Alaska’s Institute of Social and Economic Research, cuts beyond the $3.4 billion in budget cuts since 2013 will kill more private and public sector jobs, extending a recession we should fix instead. Studies show that each extra $100 million in budget cuts, by circulating less money to our businesses, the housing market, and the economy, will cost us another 1,000 – 1,500 lost, mostly private sector, jobs. That’s on top of the 6,500 jobs Alaska lost last year.
Let’s get one red herring off the table. We all believe in cutting waste. But since 2013 the legislature has cut over 40% from the state’s budget. We have the second smallest per capita budget in the past 42 years, when adjusted for the reality of inflation. The Senate effectively conceded there’s not a ton more waste to cut to fill a $2.6 billion budget deficit, with dwindling savings, when they aimed the bulk of their proposed budget cuts at public schools and other Alaska priorities. Many legislators of all parties privately admit we’ve cut too far.
This makes the Senate proposal more perplexing. Our Senate colleagues have passed $65 million in public education cuts, which will likely lead to the loss of 400 – 600 more teacher, counselor, and support staff statewide at a time when our schools have already been losing counselors and student support. The Senate has proposed over $5 million in cuts to the Pioneer Homes, which they now concede was a mistake. They have proposed $39 million in cuts to the Department that protects our seniors, disabled Alaskans, innocent children who’ve been victimized by child abuse and neglect, and many others living on the edge.
The Department of Health and Social Services, which has already been cut by roughly $200 million since 2015, cannot absorb those additional cuts, beyond the $30 million in careful efficiency cuts the Governor and our House Majority Coalition found, without hurting our most vulnerable neighbors, who battle every day for opportunity and dignity. Our only state mental health institution is already so underfunded that people are shorted on treatment for mental illness and suicide prevention. Thirty percent of released patients are readmitted within six months.
Our House Majority Coalition found another $81 million in cuts this year, without harming these Alaskans.
There is room for consensus. The Senate says they need make these cuts because we have a $2.6 billion budget hole. But they only partially fill that hole, with a plan that cuts the PFD to $1,000.
We shouldn’t do only part of the job, or put it on the backs of the poorest and most vulnerable Alaskans. We can find a fair resolution. Our House Majority Coalition has said part of the plan must be a fair share for our oil and an end to unaffordable oil company subsidies.
We propose increasing last year’s dividend to $1,250, instead of the Senate’s $1,000. And we proposed a very modest school tax that seeks a contribution mostly from those most able to pay. The funds would go to public education and would be the fourth smallest income tax in the nation. Under that proposal, a joint filer, for example, would pay no income tax on their first $31,000 in income, and would only pay $25 on each $1,000 in income above that. Rates would modestly rise on Alaskans with greater wealth and a greater ability to contribute.
I wish there were a magic way to end job losses. All legislators want a bright future for our residents. We need a balanced approach that fully solves our deficit. We can’t kick the can down the road anymore.