Alaska 2017: A year of almosts and maybes

Things almost happened in 2017.

The Alaska Legislature almost shut down state government. Lawmakers almost revived the state’s income tax. They almost diverted a portion of the Alaska Permanent Fund to general expenses.

The results of 2017 indicate big things may be around the corner.

Gov. Bill Walker returned from China with promises for a new gas pipeline. Attention to sexual harassment brought light to an issue that Alaska’s women have been dealing with for years. The state’s marijuana and alcohol industries dealt with a change in a change in recreational habits.

When it comes to the top 10 state issues of 2017, they all have one thing in common: Alaska is at a turning point. If you’re a pessimist, it’s a precipice — with the state poised to jump off the other side. If you’re an optimist, it’s a chance to change things for the better.

We’ll decide which is which in 2018.

1. Averting a shutdown

The Alaska Legislature’s brush with a government shutdown is the top story of the year. No other topic had the potential for such broad consequences, and none was tied into so many other issues. The near-shutdown was a result of budget conflicts that have extended for years, and it has the potential to return in 2018.

2. Crime and punishment

Whether its source is opioid addiction, the ongoing statewide recession, or flaws in criminal justice laws, Alaskans coped with a significant crime wave in 2017. Anchorage saw a new record for homicides and car thefts. In Juneau, burglaries and robberies garnered attention. The Alaska Legislature devoted an entire special session to the topic. This, like No. 1 on the list, touched almost everyone in the state.

3. Sexual harassment in the Legislature

A national wave of attention to sexual harassment issues arrived in the Alaska Legislature late in the year, with significant consequences. One state senator was investigated and cleared, while a state representative resigned after being accused of sexual harassment by several women. The Legislature is revising its own policies on dealing with harassment.

4. Permanent Fund changes

The Alaska Legislature didn’t fully pull the trigger on changes to the way the Alaska Permanent Fund’s proceeds are handled, but it certainly put a round in the chamber and took aim. The House and Senate have each approved plans to use some of the proceeds of the Permanent Fund for regular expenses, an act that would have reprecussions for the future of the fund and — by extension — to the dividend paid to every Alaskan.

5. Oil tax reform

The Alaska Legislature actually passed a significant cut to the state’s system of subsidies for oil and gas drilling, but that news was somewhat hidden by the bigger stories of the year. It also doesn’t have quite the same direct impact on ordinary Alaskans as other topics, but it’s still a major accomplishment that in many previous years would be the top story of the year.

6. Ferry system turmoil

The Alaska Marine Highway System is continuing to have problems with maintenance, staffing and budget cuts. It also struggled to sell a surplus ferry as it prepares to launch two others in the coming year and a half. Toward the end of the year, system leaders warned that due to a legislative mistake, the system doesn’t have enough money to finish the fiscal year. Without supplemental cash, the system will shut down.

7. Gas pipeline progress

Alaskans have been waiting for a trans-Alaska natural gas pipeline for 40 years, and when Gov. Bill Walker signed an agreement in a gala Chinese ceremony, it appeared the dream was closer than ever. Market forces, dwindling state savings accounts and the realities of building an 800-mile pipeline have been a cold bucket of water on that dream.

8. Taxes or not

The Alaska Legislature spent much of the year debating whether or not to revive the state’s income tax, and in what form. Ultimately, the Alaska Senate Majority’s “no” votes decided the issue, and the Alaska House’s coalition majority has said it won’t pursue a tax in 2018. Gov. Bill Walker seems to have picked up the baton, however, and is proposing a 1.5 percent payroll tax.

9. Marijuana’s first full year

Alaska became the first state to create a recreational marijuana industry from scratch. It also became the first “red” state to legalize recreational marijuana. The past year was the first full year of recreational sales, and while there were some minor hiccups, there weren’t any major problems.

10. Bar Wars

Alaskans are drinking less alcohol, but they’re drinking differently, and that’s having consequences across the state as breweries and distilleries pressure state regulators and bars with new products and seek the boundaries of what’s allowed by law.

 


 

• Contact reporter James Brooks at james.k.brooks@juneauempire.com or call 523-2258.

 


 

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