The following editorial first appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:
Gov. Bill Walker didn’t mince words much in this year’s State of the State address, delivered last week in Juneau. Speaking to the Legislature in the Capitol Building, the governor characterized the state’s roughly $4 billion budget hole as an existential threat to Alaska’s economic future. In a telling statement, Gov. Walker also said he’s willing to stand behind his plan to balance the budget even if it ultimately costs him his job. Whether or not the governor’s plan is the one that ultimately goes forward, his two major statements in the address were spot on: The budget gap must be addressed this year, and those who the people have elected to deal with it should be principally concerned with the state’s future, not their own.
Make no mistake, the Legislature and Gov. Walker have an unenviable job. They face a mammoth budget deficit for which there are no easy answers. Their budget this year will certainly include more cuts, and the public has been vocally opposed to many of those made so far. If the budget is to be anywhere near balanced, it will likely include at least a rejiggering of the Alaska Permanent Fund’s role in the state and possibly new individual taxes as well.
The permanent fund is poorly understood by a majority of state residents, many of whom see any change to its current structure as a raid. And with a median age of 33.8 years, fewer than half of Alaskans have ever paid state taxes and are very unlikely to view them charitably when they arise as a topic for debate. It’s a tough hill to climb to convince state residents of the necessity of these solutions.
But this doesn’t excuse punting on a budget fix in hopes that Alaskans will understand the necessity of such drastic measures after the fall elections. Even a year’s delay in making strides to balance the budget would cripple the revenue-generating potential of state accounts and endanger the state’s fiscal solvency in years to come. It could also make a state draw on the permanent fund earnings reserve far more likely, which would effectively end the permanent fund dividend — perhaps forever.
This will not be an easy year in Juneau. But if legislators and Gov. Walker want to have the best chance at a future for themselves and for Alaska, they should take the tack suggested in the State of the State — think of the state’s future first, and their own second.