My Turn: Alaska can’t afford to kick the can down the road

  • Tuesday, March 15, 2016 1:00am
  • Opinion

Alaskans, it’s time to make some hard decisions.

As you’ve probably heard, our state is facing a perfect fiscal storm. Mainly due to a sharp drop in oil prices, state revenue has fallen by almost 90 percent in just two years. We’re earning less than half of what we need to cover our budget — and that’s after four years of spending cuts.

When you’re facing hard decisions, the human impulse is to procrastinate. We get it. As our team was delving into the options for tackling Alaska’s growing budget gap, don’t think we weren’t tempted to kick the can down the road. After all, we can eke out the savings in the Constitutional Budget Reserve for another year or two.

But too often when we put off difficult decisions, we later look back and realize just how costly that delay was. We have the tools to fix our budget challenge. Are the choices going to be any better if we put off action?

No. They will only be worse.

We will have lost opportunities we can never get back.

We won’t be able to invest in new infrastructure or maintain what we’ve worked so hard to build. We won’t be able to invest in great schools, a fine university, or quality health facilities.

It will be harder to attract private investment. Credit rating agencies have downgraded Alaska’s rating and warned of further downgrades if lawmakers don’t act this year to balance the budget.

We’ll lose jobs and send our economy into a downward spiral.

And the solutions will be harder to come by. Savings totaling some $7 billion will be gone in two years. That in turn reduces our asset base and we’ll have less money to put into the Permanent Fund, so it will generate less money going forward. That means we’ll have to raise more in taxes or cut more from public services.

Within four years, Permanent Fund dividends will go to zero if we don’t act now to balance the budget.

In this time of fiscal uncertainty, Alaska suffers greatly. If we delay, solutions now available slip away. To begin to grow Alaska again, to put fear and uncertainty behind us, these imperatives are within our reach if the Legislature acts now.

Imagine your family lost your main source of income. Would you spend all your cash savings before coming up with a plan to sustain your family?

We need a plan — now. Otherwise we’re burning the roof rafters to keep warm. It works for a little while, but it’s not a very good plan.

Many say to just cut the budget. We have cut state spending from $8 billion in 2013 to $4.8 billion in the coming year. We will continue to cut. But we could shut down all our schools and all our jails and it still wouldn’t close the gap between revenue and spending. We simply cannot cover a $3.8 billion budget gap through spending cuts alone.

And we cannot cover it through taxes alone. We’d bankrupt Alaskan families and businesses.

Fortunately, we have the tools to self-heal. We’ve proposed the New Sustainable Alaska Plan, which closes the state’s budget gap through a combination of spending cuts, modest tax increases, and carefully structured use of Permanent Fund earnings. Our plan ensures that all sectors of the economy contribute to the solution, including nonresidents who enjoy the benefits of Alaska jobs. Our plan is written in pencil, not pen. We welcome alternative solutions as long as they meet basic tests of fairness and sustainability.

But we must act this year.

Let’s do our children a powerful favor and make the hard choices now. Let’s set Alaska on a course for prosperity. Let’s clear away the cloud of uncertainty.

It will take some sacrifice from each of us. We take inspiration from our predecessors — the first Alaskans as well as the pioneers who followed — who were resourceful, resilient and tough. They cared for their families and their communities. They shared, they saved, they planned – in order to build something greater for their children.

We Alaskans enjoy the lowest individual taxes in the nation. Ours is the only state that pays an annual dividend to residents. If we implement all the elements of the New Sustainable Alaska Plan, Alaska will still have the lowest or second-lowest taxes in the nation. Alaskans will still receive an annual dividend.

And we will be able to look to the future with confidence. We will be able to build Alaska. We will be able to educate our children and keep our communities safe. We will know that our Permanent Fund is protected for the long term.

But it requires action this year. Let’s not kick the can down the road.

• Bill Walker is governor of Alaska and Byron Mallott is lieutenant governor.

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