Columns 2015

The only adult in the room

Sometimes it’s simply not fun to be the only adult in the room. While everyone else it having fun being silly and stupid, you are required to maintain some semblance of dignity and intelligence. Watching our local politicians at work I have to say that I am becoming more and more convinced that Governor Walker may be the only adult in any room full of Alaskan politicians.

Remember when you were a kid and it seemed as though it was always your parents raining on your parade? You know, they’d say things like, “No you can’t stick that dime into the light socket” or “Take the dog out of the toilet this minute. That is not for baths.” Or my all time favorite, “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should, so get that record out of the toaster right now.” (A record, for those of you who have never heard of such outside of a sports statistic, is a black, round, vinyl object that emits music when a needle is smoothly run around its grooves).

Well, it unfortunately seems to be falling to Gov. Walker to inject some adult truth into the conversation in Juneau about the state’s finances and our foreseeable future fiscal reality. You don’t have to agree completely with his budget proposal but it’s hard not to see it as the first real moment in our debate over how long we can hold our breath and hope that oil prices will go back up.

I’ll be the first to admit that he is proposing cuts to programs I find near and dear. I’m guessing there are few Alaskans who won’t find one of their favorites going under the knife in this budget. And, of course, even whispering the words “state income tax” is enough to make some swoon in despair. Add to that the idea of somehow limiting our birthright of a big PFD check each year and you can see why this proposal is causing heartburn from the tip of the Arctic to the bottom of the Panhandle.

In the hope of helping foster an actual mature conversation about our current financial woes, let me remind Alaskans that we once understood that we had to pay for the services we received. When I first moved to Alaska in 1972, long before oil started gushing from Prudhoe Bay, I paid a state income tax. And, quite honestly, I did it without much angst because I had been raised to believe that you have to pay for what you get. Government services cost money and the people who are the recipients of those services have some responsibility to pay for them.

Was it wonderful when the state income tax was eliminated because we were rolling in petro dollars? Sure. Who wouldn’t like to take a few more bucks home every week while still getting (now free) services? But the unfortunate result of that gift is a segment of Alaska’s citizenry who feel entitled to everything while paying nothing. Cutting the budget, as every actual economist who has looked at our fiscal situation has made clear, is simply not enough. We will never balance the budget without finding new revenue streams. So as painful as it may be for both Alaska’s citizens and its legislators, we have to start contributing to the state budget to keep the lights on in Alaska. As adults, at least those of us who qualify as such, we should understand that. 

My biggest concern about our upcoming legislative session is that it will once again devolve into a battle between Republicans and Gov. Walker based on the fact that they have still not forgiven him for actually winning the election. But he did win. And that means that the majority of Alaskans heard what he had to say and liked it more than they liked what other candidates were saying.  So those Republicans who are still sitting in dark corners licking their wounds and plotting revenge should get over it, come into the light and work with the governor to create a financially sustainable model for Alaska’s future.

If that future includes an income tax, so be it. If that future includes cuts to programs many of us consider near and dear, so be it. Adults face reality and deal with it. It would be nice if our legislators would do that too.