Columns 2017

Political ethics… more ephemeral than spun sugar

I don’t know about you but I am personally ready to beat on any Alaskan politician claiming to cut the fat from the state budget to make ends meet without offering a single instance of where that fat is.

We are in the middle of a statewide fiscal crisis. Combine the budget gap with the recession and you have a perfect storm for wreaking havoc in the lives of ordinary citizens. Yet our state Senate seems intent on making that situation worse by offering a budget fix that would destroy thousands of jobs, deepen the recession and only be good for their employers in the extraction industry. (In case you missed the headline, we will actually give the oil companies more money than we will get from them next year thanks to the oil tax credit bill.)

Given that we need a few billion dollars to close the budget gap, any reasonable response would include a bill that combines cuts with new revenues. The majority of Alaskans have indicated in poll after poll that they are willing to pay to continue state services.

But for some reason, certain members of the legislature, mostly in the Senate, simply refuse to accept that reality. They tell us they are going to cut the state budget by a billion dollars to close the gap. The problem is, they become extremely vague and evasive when asked exactly where that billion would come from. They become even more evasive when asked how the state would deal with inflationary costs that are part of any budget as the years go by if no new revenues streams are created.

So where’s the fat? In our education budget? Our human services budget? Our infrastructure maintenance budget? Oh, maybe from the per diem rate the legislature pays itself? For every budget cut proposed, we all know a group will form to protest the cut. Look how quickly legislators defended their per diem, even when living in their own homes.

Every state program has a core group of supporters and that core group will not go away without a fight. Given that many of our legislators are often nothing more than vote whores, chances are they will cave if their precious position is threatened by citizens stating they will not re-elect them if the cut is made.

This situation will end up as it has ended up every year since the price of a barrel of oil dropped precipitously. Some cosmetic cuts are made, nowhere near enough to balance the budget, and those cuts come in the programs that usually affect the most vulnerable populations in the state – the mentally ill, addicts, victims of domestic violence, foster kids. Until those groups get their act together and hire lobbyists to fight for them, their share of state funding will always be as vulnerable as they are. The budget will then be balanced using the almost empty reserves we put away for a rainy day because – surprise! – that billion dollars in cuts to state government proved as ephemeral as political ethics.

We are now well past the halfway mark of this current legislative session. So far, the House seems to be trying to do its job to produce a reasonable plan to deal with our fiscal fiasco and is actually sharing information on its process with the public. This, despite North Pole Rep. Tammie Wilson’s endless stream of useless amendments that offered no real solutions while slowing down any actual progress.

The Senate, on the other hand, seems intent on a repeat of last year – propose bills with no chance of either passing, getting signed into law or realistically closing the budget gap and then standing by them as the ship of state sinks.

Since the Senate plans on closing this budget gap by using cuts to the current state budget, and since the state budget affects all of us one way or another, wouldn’t it be nice if they let us know ahead of time what programs they are targeting so we can weigh in on their choices. But that’s not going to happen. They will either pass some amorphous budget that just says to slash a billion from state spending and then let the administration take the heat for programs that are killed by the cuts; or they will tell us the day before they scurry home to hide in their little holes from the anger of the citizens they once again screwed.

But not to worry. They’ll survive. Their employers will see to that so long as they take care of their employers’ bottom line. And no, Alaskans, you are not the employers they are worried about serving.