Empire Editorial: There is no next year if budget isn’t fixed now

  • Tuesday, January 19, 2016 1:02am
  • Opinion

Welcome back, members of the Alaska Legislature. We wish you were returning under better circumstances.

When the last Legislative session began in January 2015, oil prices were around $50 per barrel. When lawmakers convened for a special session last fall, it was around $40. Now, it’s under $30.

We have little doubt these steep, and seemingly endless, drops in price has caused many a sleepless nights. And with the new session beginning today, it will cause many more.

But there is a silver lining for all of you, our elected delegates tasked with choosing a path for all Alaskans to follow. This Legislature can be the first one since oil began flowing through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System to rid the state’s budget of its oil dependency by charting a new, sustainable course for decades to come. Or you can doom us all with political games and political gains. After all, it’s an election year for many of you.

But no pressure.

We hope as committee meetings begin, priorities are set and plans drafted, lawmakers will approach this session as if they don’t care if they’re reelected in the fall. Doing what’s right for all Alaskans versus what your constituents want to see happen won’t be in perfect tune for everyone in every district. Lawmakers need to think beyond their own districts because of the potential impact to every Alaskan household.

The reaction to Gov. Bill Walker’s Sovereign Wealth Model has been received with mixed reactions from members of both chambers. Some see it as a clear-cut solution, others think it picks on industry and residents via taxation a little too much. No one is entirely happy with Walker’s plan, which suggests it’s likely the best plan out there. Even a variation of the plan would be fine, so long as it addresses Alaska’s dependency on oil profits and can pay for the most essential functions of government.

Here’s the reality, and you all know it as well as we do: there’s only enough money in the Capital Budget Reserve to close Alaska’s fiscal gap two more times. After that, we’re raiding the Permanent Fund to make ends meet. Alaskans are looking to the 60 of you to keep that from happening.

It’s essential this Legislature comes up with a permanent plan this year. Last session, too much time was spent bickering between majority and minority members over funding for services and departments, and Alaska spent far too much money during two special sessions for those arguments to be had.

Our state cannot afford a repeat of 2015.

There’s a momentous task ahead of all of you. Fortunately we’ve seen this crisis coming for years now and no one should be caught off guard by either the reality of the situation or the urgency to find a solution.

We’ve seen the list of pre-filed bills, and are also aware of those set aside from last year waiting for the 29th Legislature to reconvene. As important as some of these bills are, it’s the budget and crafting a long-term fiscal plan that should be the top priority for every lawmaker.

Without that, the state will be helpless in a few years to provide for even the most basic of services.

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