After three years trying to convince Alaskans of the severity of the state’s fiscal crisis, Revenue Commissioner Randy Hoffbeck is about to try a new job: Healing broken churches.
On Tuesday, Hoffbeck announced that he will resign from state service on Aug. 17 and return to a religious vocation he left to lead the state’s finance division.
“After dealing with Legislature, I think I can handle the receptionist and organist not getting along,” Hoffbeck said by phone on Tuesday.
At the time of his confirmation by the Legislature, Hoffbeck had retired from serving as the North Slope Borough’s chief of staff and was preparing to become a full-time pastor.
Instead, he accepted the invitation of Gov. Bill Walker to join his administration.
“When the governor taps you on the shoulder, it’s really hard to say no,” Hoffbeck said. “We’ve been friends for a long time. I couldn’t say no.”
At the time, Hoffbeck told Walker he would serve for only one term, if Walker was re-elected. In an interview with the Associated Press last week, Walker said he will run again.
“I had only committed to one term; I didn’t quite make it to the end of one term, but this was always part of the plan that I would serve one term,” Hoffbeck said.
Others are in the same position.
“I think you may see that with some of the other commissioners as well,” he said.
Hoffbeck will leave the department at an auspicious time. The Alaska Legislature has concluded its third special session of the year and has stayed in session for 181 days cumulative, the second-highest figure in state history.
In the next year, dwindling reserves are expected to force the Legislature to make tough choices on government spending, the Alaska Permanent Fund and new taxes. Last week, Walker told the Associated Press that he will unveil a deficit-fighting tax proposal later this year.
Since 2014, Hoffbeck, Pat Pitney of the Office of Management and Budget, and Walker have conducted more than 500 meetings statewide to inform Alaskans about an approaching “fiscal cliff” that will arrive when the state runs out of savings.
They told chambers of commerce, community groups and civic organizations that the state’s debt rating would suffer, that services would be lost and that trouble would loom if the Legislature failed to balance the budget.
“Everything we said was going to happen has happened,” Hoffbeck said. “I’ve kind of reached the point where I’ve done as much as I can to move the agenda.”
Hoffbeck said he feels lawmakers and the public are aware of the problem, in part because of the Walker administration’s efforts.
“Now it just needs to kind of simmer a while and let people come to a realization that they’ve got to move,” Hoffbeck said.
If they don’t move, the consequences are large: Financial depression, state bankruptcy or worse.
Some Juneau residents have talked about getting out before that happens — of selling their homes (at record-high prices) and moving south.
Is Hoffbeck doing that?
“No. I was already retired; I don’t need to get out before something happens to save my career,” he said. “I don’t feel any sense within the administration of people wanting to get out.”
When Hoffbeck leaves, his interim successor will be Jerry Burnett, who praised Hoffbeck as a leader and someone who has left the machinery of the Department of Revenue in good condition, even if it faces big challenges.
“We’ve got a department that’s as good as the Department of Revenue has ever been,” he said. “We’re all sad to see him go.”
Asked whether he might be interested in becoming the permanent director, Burnett said he hasn’t spoken to the governor about “any plans for the future at this point.”
Before Hoffbeck, Angela Rodell served as revenue commissioner under Gov. Sean Parnell. She came to that office in almost the same position as Burnett: She was named to replace Bryan Butcher in August 2013; Parnell subsequently lost the 2014 gubernatorial election to Walker. Rodell now heads the Alaska Permanent Fund.
Rodell said that based on her experience, “I think it’s going to be a really interesting time for Jerry,” but she believes he is up to the challenge.
“Jerry’s had a long history with the Department of Revenue, and he understands the Department of Revenue. I think they’re well-positioned,” she said. “I suspect commissioner Burnett wouldn’t have left if he felt otherwise.”
• Contact reporter James Brooks at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 523-2258.