Empire Editorial: Legislature did a D+ job in 2016

  • Friday, July 22, 2016 1:02am
  • Opinion

No session of the Alaska Legislature is perfect.

This one was far from it.

Two years ago, we awarded the Legislature a B+ grade for passing education reform, pension reform and a natural gas pipeline bill, plus the state’s annual budget bills.

This year, the Legislature did even more, passing reform bills affecting criminal justice, the Power-Cost Equalization Fund, community revenue sharing, Medicaid, oil and gas drilling subsidies, and foster care. The Legislature approved a new code of military justice, relaxed penalties for kids caught with alcohol, and overall made life better for many Alaskans.

In a normal year, the Legislature’s accomplishments would be worth an A grade.

This year wasn’t normal.

Lawmakers had one primary task: addressing the state’s multibillion-dollar budget deficit.

They failed.

If lawmakers had passed nothing else but a deficit fix, they would have earned a passing grade.

They failed.

Their intentions may have been good, but we grade on results, not intent.

The sole revenue-increasing bill legislators passed was a measure that will garner $6 million per year from increased fish and game tag and license fees.

The Senate voted upon and passed a measure that would have used Permanent Fund earnings to erase part of the deficit, but it didn’t consider a single tax increase. The House of Representatives did neither.

Both bodies cooperated in failure. When they blazed past the 90-day session limit approved by Alaskans, we thought a solution was possible. When Gov. Bill Walker gave them an extension with a special session, they still couldn’t get it done. Even when Walker called an extraordinary second special session, they still could not complete the sole primary goal they set out for themselves at the start of the year.

A D+ is not an F — lawmakers did accomplish a great deal this year — but because our state’s elected leaders did not complete the sole required task, they do not get a passing grade.

Failure has consequences. When Alaskans go to the polls in August and November, they should remember that.

• • •

Juneau’s legislators did their best during the session, but their individual grades were dragged down by the collective failure of their coworkers. The Juneau delegation did not resort to misleading rhetoric about “raiding the Permanent Fund” or stealing Alaskans’ dividends.

Our Juneau lawmakers found themselves in the position of passengers aboard an overloaded ship. They urged their counterparts to simply dump some luggage overboard. Instead, those other passengers simply denied there was a problem, then locked themselves in their staterooms.

 

Cathy Munoz: C-

As a member of the Alaska House’s finance committee, Munoz voted in favor of many of the revenue solutions we backed. She successfully sponsored and passed three pieces of legislation that answer Juneau interests: Sweetheart dam financing, a sportfishing bill, and a bill easing land trades between the state and private groups. That last bill will specifically benefit Echo Ranch and Point Bridget State Park.

Munoz was a force for compromise and moderation this year, but unfortunately, her force was not enough.

 

Sam Kito: D+

Kito’s presence was felt most in meetings of the Legislative Council, where he argued persuasively against the Legislature’s purchase of office buildings in Anchorage. Unfortunately, at least one of those purchases is moving forward. In the regular business of the Legislature, Kito was unable to obtain the passage of a single bill he sponsored. This is almost entirely due to his status as a prominent member of the House Minority, which was largely shut out of the legislative process by the House Majority. He did manage to accomplish some of his goals through behind-the-scenes negotiations and amendments to other bills.

 

Dennis Egan: C-

In the Senate, Egan voted in favor of Senate Bill 128 to divert money from the Permanent Fund to pay for state services. This bill was the core of the governor’s plan to balance the budget, and it advanced from the Senate with Egan’s support. Egan also was a notable voice in favor of keeping lawmakers in Juneau throughout the extended regular session and the two special sessions.

As a member of the Senate minority, Egan had the same trouble that Kito did with legislation. However, he also bucked the minority/majority divide on several occasions and backed legislation that ultimately passed.

His Senate Bill 187, dealing with arson on private property, was ultimately passed as an amendment to Senate Bill 91.

Egan’s support of — and the Senate’s passage of — the Permanent Fund bill are key to his grade this year.

 

Gov. Bill Walker: B

Walker put forward the sole comprehensive plan to balance the state’s budget deficit and promoted that plan to the best of his ability. Unfortunately, that ability was not enough. Walker repeatedly shot himself in the foot during negotiations with legislators and demonstrated an at-times alarming lack of ability to successfully negotiate. During the second special session, relations between the Legislature and the administration reached a new low, and we fear they may decline still further.

Nevertheless, Walker took hard action. When his fiscal plan failed, he vetoed more than $1 billion from the state’s budget, including $1,000 from the Permanent Fund Dividend of every Alaskan man, woman and child. This was an unprecedented action, and one we dearly wish had not been necessary. We continue to believe that Alaska cannot cut its way to fiscal stability. We award Walker a B: When push came to shove, he acted without consideration for his political future. He did what was necessary, not what was popular.

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