Senate President Kevin Meyer should look at putting Sens. Pete Kelly and Anna MacKinnon on a shorter leash. The two Senate Finance Committee co-chairs aren’t focused on identifying new sources of revenue to close the budget gap. Instead, they are clinging to a misunderstood ideology and acting like their position of power makes them much smarter than the people of Alaska.
During last year’s session the Republican majority avoided talking new taxes. Gov. Bill Walker didn’t put any on the table either. So MacKinnon, R-Eagle River, and Kelly, R-Fairbanks, took it as a prime opportunity to work at shrinking state government to a size of their liking. They happily led a budget cutting frenzy that examined every penny in the state’s multibillion-dollar budget.
“In this present crisis,” President Ronald Reagan said as a precursor to his most famous 12 words, “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” What MacKinnon and Kelly should know is that our crisis is very different. And it seems they’ve forgotten what part of the government the new president was railing against.
On his inauguration day in 1981, Reagan was addressing an economy plagued by double digit unemployment, inflation and interest rates. Our problem is a massive shortfall of the oil tax revenue that’s powered the state government for decades.
Alaskans understand why this has happened. That’s why two-thirds of the people polled by the Rasmuson Foundation support new revenue as part of the solution to closing the budget deficit. And 55 percent support Walker’s proposal that includes an income tax and smaller dividends, while only 32 percent oppose it.
This doesn’t just mean the public is willing to accept new taxes; we also support the role of government. And so did Reagan. In that same speech, he said, “Government can and must provide opportunity” without “barriers born of bigotry or discrimination.” And he called on us to be compassionate to all Americans by lending a hand when someone falls upon hard times.
To understand the context of these remarks you have to recognize the newly-elected president was intending “to curb the size and influence of the Federal establishment.” He never meant that government must be dismantled everywhere. Instead he wanted to give the states and their citizens more say than Washington D.C. in determining their own destiny.
That had to include shifting expenses to the states, too. Our public school system is a good example. Although Reagan never shut down the federal Department of Education as he promised, if he had the costs of public education wouldn’t have gone away. The work at the state and local levels would have continued — and likely grown.
Sure, Reagan believed government stifled opportunity and productivity. But the full story is that it expanded under his watch. Even though he lowered the income tax burden on most Americans, he also pushed through several sizable tax increases. Mostly he presided over an increase in the federal debt that was three and half times greater than it’s grown under President Barack Obama.
That’s why the GOP still has a national platform aimed at cutting the federal government. But as Gov. Walker and most Alaskans know, we’ve about reached the limits on how much we can reduce state government.
Meanwhile, Kelly is demanding more spending cuts before he’ll consider the governor’s tax proposals. “When you begin to ask the people of Alaska to deliver the fruits of their labor,” he said to reporters at a press conference on Tuesday, “you better make sure government is the right size.” MacKinnon said Medicaid reform would be the first thing on her plate.
Republicans in all state legislatures need to stop blaming every problem they face on the size and inefficiencies of state government. Yes, the government has problems, but Reagan’s remarks the day when he moved into the White House were not at all consistent with the oversimplified creed that government at every level is our entire problem.
Meyer, R-Anchorage, needs to steer Kelly and MacKinnon away from believing the state should follow that shorthand reading of the Reagan legacy. They won’t help solve the budget problem hiding behind the glory of a past that never existed. But if they continue to try, they’ll be remembered as the elites in Alaska’s Legislature who weren’t the solution to our problem. They’ll be remembered as part of the problem.
• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident and retired civil engineer with more than 25 years of experience working in the public sector.