Columns 2016

Time to pay our own bills

Wow. It’s as though the legislators read my columns and decided to test my resolve to not write any advocacy pieces for programs I don’t think should have further financial cuts. I made a promise to myself that, given our current fiscal situation, everything had to be on the table in order to resolve our budget crisis. Then some committee recommended cutting all of public broadcasting funding. And further cuts were discussed for programs that help the most vulnerable in our society.

Public broadcasting has had an uphill funding battle at the state level ever since we lost the oil companies’ platinum taxation plan. Each year some legislator decides to eliminate all its funding. But abused women and neglected children? C’mon guys. Surely you can find places to cut before you go for them.

It seems to me we’ve reached a point where Alaskans have to ask themselves what quality of life they find acceptable in their state, not only for the middle class but for those on the edges of society who need help. Are they willing to pay taxes to keep shelters open, to keep counselors available to the mentally ill, to keep children fed so they can learn? And how will the private institutions in this state pick up the slack if state services are cut?

There are people who believe that government should not be providing programs like women’s shelters and safe homes. They believe that is the job of private, non-profit and religious organizations. According to this philosophy, needy people should not be coddled by the state so that they become lazy free loaders who live off our largesse. You see these people all the time in town. They’re the ones living in their cars because the only jobs they can get pay less than a living wage. They are the parents working three jobs just to pay the rent but need those food stamps for all the little extras, like food.  Are there lazy people in our society who would prefer to have everything handed to them? Of course there are. But after a few days of living off the free handouts you get from the government, you quickly realize those handouts make life barely tolerable.

What it comes down to is what Alaskans are willing to support with government money and whether we are willing to pay anything for the services we receive. Because every one of us uses government services on a regular basis, whether it’s the paved road we’re driving on, the clean water (if you don’t live in Flint) we get from our taps or the fact that we go to most restaurants unafraid of being poisoned because we know the government inspects the premises to keep us safe. As for the churches and other non-profits that work to make life a little better for those who are in need, how much more can we ask them to do? If we continue to cut government services to the poorest and most vulnerable in our society, what will our society become?

I don’t know about you, but I’d prefer not to live in a Dickensian world in which the poor die in the streets or are locked away in poor houses. I’d prefer we not revisit a world in which men beat women and children with impunity because there is no one to speak for them or protect them. I’d prefer to live in a world where the good fortune I’ve been privileged to enjoy in this life doesn’t turn into a sour taste in my mouth every time I see a homeless person, a hungry child or a beaten woman and think that maybe I should have been able to somehow contribute to helping them.

I do not envy our legislators their work this year. But I hope they find the moral courage to understand that in the end, we are all in this together. And sometimes we have to pay for living in this wonderful state. So maybe the message should be that if you only want to live here so long as oil taxes pay the bills, it’s time to leave because those days are over. If we want to continue to live in a great state, we’re simply going to have to start paying our own bills.