Columns 2015

We need to pay for what we want

Like many people reading this column, I was raised by parents survived the Great Depression. Their view of money was always going to be skewed by that experience. My father didn’t get a credit card until he was in his sixties. In his world, you didn’t buy something you couldn’t pay for.

All through my childhood my godmother sent my mom money to buy me a new outfit each Easter and Christmas. In fact, when I was all grown up and making more money in a year than she’d ever imagined possible, my godmother still sent me money out of the very tiny amount she survived on in old age. Whenever my sister and I were getting ready to travel to some remote location, an envelope with a card and a check for $15 would arrive in the mail with a message telling me that we should enjoy a dinner on her.

My parents taught me that money did not grow on trees and that if I wanted something, I either needed to work for it or have an incredibly generous aunt.  And my aunt taught me that being incredibly generous was a good and kind thing to do while also teaching me the value of community and family, of one person helping another so all could have a better life.

As our legislature wrestles with budget numbers that have fallen below anything they could have imagined in their worse nightmares, I find myself thinking that we would have all been better off following my family’s philosophy on money. You didn’t spend what you didn’t have, you earned what you spent, and you shared with those in need.

Alaskans have spent way too many years living off of someone else’s money. That free ride is seemingly over. The question is whether we will learn a lesson from this financial disaster or simply hope the price of oil goes back up.

As cuts are announced in even our most sacred cows, I have deliberately not come out advocating replacing that money because I have yet to hear anyone give a reasonable explanation of where the funds will come from. I think education is critical to our future. I think public broadcasting is a vital link to sanity in a world full of noise. I think shelters for abused women should be put in every village in this state. But we no longer have the money to do that.

I still hear few voices accepting responsibility for paying for these programs in any way other than having someone else do it. There’s talk about tightening tax loopholes. Go for it, I say. But is that enough? If programs being cut are those we feel are truly critical to our state, then we should be willing to chip in to pay for them.

So let me be the first to say that I am willing to pay my share to keep the quality of life in this state good and healthy for all. I’ll pay taxes if needed to keep those shelters open and to keep public broadcasting on the air, the same way I pay taxes for schools even though I’ve never had a child in one. I pay because community life demands that we all participate in making our community as healthy as possible for all its members, whether that service directly benefits us or not. We either are a community that pulls together or we’re simply a collection of individuals who only care about ourselves.

I understand some cynicism about this concept. There are those who feel that politicians will spend as much money as we give them. While there is obviously more truth in that statement than we could wish for, Alaska’s fiscal reality is such that even I can understand how broker we are. And no one has ever accused me of having a fine math mind.

We can no longer fund all the programs we have grown so dependent on. If we’re even a little bit smart, we will work hard to never put ourselves in this position again. OK, even I couldn’t write that sentence without bursting into laughter. I guess Alaska’s motto remains what it has always been – no, not North To The Future. The other motto, the one that says, “Please god, give us another boom. We promise not to p..s this one away.”