Columns 2015

We want the services, we just don’t want to pay for them

As the budget process unfolds in Juneau, all my expectations are being met. Every cut proposed produces an interest group that opposes the cut. Meanwhile, the legislature, in its infinite wisdom, felt it was so important that it could only cut less than 2% from its own budget while subjecting other departments to much deeper cuts. So pretty much business as usual.

One legislator tried to gut public broadcasting. That’s such an annual routine at this point I would almost miss it if it didn’t happen. And as usual, the cries heard from all over the state resulted in at least most of the money being restored. Given that public broadcasting is still the way many legislators communicate with their constituents, this was a smart, if somewhat still self-serving, move. Programs aimed at the most horrible and pervasive problems in this state – domestic abuse and sexual violence – were also substantially cut despite the cries from providers who are sinking under the weight of the trauma with which they must deal on a daily basis.

I predicted at the beginning of this legislative session that Alaskans would not respond well to budget cuts and that, in fact, Alaska Airlines would reap a record profit from all the people heading to Juneau to try and prevent the worse of those cuts to programs they supported. And so it has come to pass. What hasn’t come to pass is any hue and cry to raise revenues for these programs by instituting a state income tax. If I understand the thinking that goes into this attitude, it runs something like this: So long as the oil companies are paying for these programs and it’s not coming out of my pocket, go for it – but if I have to pay anything towards them, then they aren’t needed.

Taxes have never been a popular part of government. You can probably go back to ancient Greece and find some writing on stone tablets bitching about the amount of taxes someone had to pay. Alaskans used to pay a state income tax. But the minute oil money started rolling in, we canceled that and have lived royally off of revenues from our main non-renewable resource. As best I can tell, our current fiscal plan is to pray to any god we can find that oil prices go back up.

I get no more joy out of paying taxes than anyone else. In a perfect world, I’d get to keep every cent I made. But we don’t live in a perfect world. We live in a world where government and the services it provides are critical to our way of life. Whether it’s fixing bridges, educating children or providing funds for a warm place to sleep for the homeless, we need what government does. No amount of private non-profit charities, religious institutions or individual effort can give these services to us to the same extent that government does. Some needs simply require the reach of government to be successfully addressed.

So what’s wrong with us as Alaskans that we feel we are entitled to these services but should not be asked to pay for them? I’m not exactly an apologist for the oil companies – on a good day their bank balance is probably a tad larger than mine – but I do wonder how we reached the point where we feel they should pay for all our needs and we shouldn’t have to participate in the process at all. If these programs, from public broadcasting to safe homes to plowed roads to working traffic lights, are so important that we lobby to keep them alive as state finances tank, then why aren’t they important enough for us to chip into the pot that pays for them?

I was in Alaska before the pipeline when we had a state income tax. That tax provided such a small base that Alaska truly was a frontier with few government services available. After the pipeline, the state income tax went away, oil revenues exploded, services soared and we became used to living more like a first world country than a third world country. If we want that to continue, and praying that oil prices rise high enough quickly enough to save us doesn’t work as a fiscal plan, maybe we should consider that we might have to pay a little out of our own pockets.

Scary thought, right?