John Naisbitt, futurist and author of Megatrends, observed that in America’s participatory democracy, “Leadership involves finding a parade and getting in front of it.” Applying this astute observation to Alaska’s fiscal predicament, the “take action now” parade is happening. Will our Alaska Legislature jump in front of it or ignore it?
According to the August 2015 Rasmuson poll, “66 percent of Alaskans support using a portion of excess earnings from the Permanent Fund to fund public services and programs while protecting the dividend program”. About 52 percent of Alaskans also support introducing a statewide income tax. Speaking to the overall poll results, Ed Rasmuson says, “These results show that Alaskans are ready to have the difficult deliberations about the sustainability of our state. And now elected leaders need to lead.”
In November the Alaska Municipal League, which represents over 160 of the cities, boroughs and unified municipalities in the state, adopted a fiscal sustainability plan based on using earnings and establishing an income tax. AML notes that, “Using part of the permanent fund dividend payout, as one piece of a larger balanced and sustainable fiscal plan, is now a necessary consideration.” AML’s plan recommends establishing a minimum floor for PFD payouts to protect the dividend program. As AML represents 98 percent of Alaska’s municipalities, the parade for fiscal action began to build.
Next a loose collaborative of about 100 young Alaskans calling themselves “Our Alaska” decided to weigh in, saying putting off action to fix the budget is unacceptable. The group, linked through social media, is trying to rally young Alaskans to push legislators to do three things: continue trimming, boost revenue and rely on the state’s savings. In the same article announcing the formation of “Our Alaska,” Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, said, “I honestly don’t think the Legislature will act on revenue enhancements. It’s unfortunate, because we’re kicking the can down the road.”
Not wanting the can to be kicked and risk further harm to the economy or Alaska’s credit rating, an unlikely coalition of businesses and unions recently formed to spur action. They call their coalition “Alaska’s Future.” Among its members, Alaska’s Future lists the Alaska AFL-CIO, Associated General Contractors, Alaska State Employees Association, Fairbanks Economic Development, Cook Inlet Regional and the National Education Association Alaska. According to their web page, “the mission of Alaska’s Future is to cultivate the broad based public support necessary to convince the Legislature, during the 2016 Legislative Session, of the urgency and importance to use Permanent Fund earnings to significantly reduce the deficit, support essential public services and maintain a sustainable dividend and a healthy Permanent Fund. This is the first step toward a stable economic foundation for Alaska.”
Also joining this parade for “action now” are an uncommon assortment of former Republican and Democratic leaders – Gov. Tony Knowles, Minority Leader Fran Ulmer, Speaker of the House Gail Phillips, Majority Leader Mike Navarre and Sen. Gary Wilkens. Through joining Alaska’s Future or in public forums, these past leaders have articulated that the economy will suffer if the Alaska Legislature goes home without addressing revenues and that Permanent Fund earnings need to be in the mix of revenue options. Additionally in a recent forum on 360 North, Ulmer, Phillips and Navarre joined former Senate President Rick Halford in calling for the introduction of an income tax.
While Gov. Bill Walker has gotten out in front with a comprehensive proposal to fill the $3.6 billion fiscal gap, legislators on the powerful finance committees appear to remain fixated on cuts. In an Alaska Dispatch News article in August 2015, responding to the Rasmuson poll, Sen. Anna MacKinnon, R-Eagle River and co-chair of Senate Finance Committee, said constituents in her district continue to prefer cuts over revenue discussions. Her Eagle River counterpart in the House, Rep. Dan Sadler, vice-chair of House Finance Committee, said he will continue to cut unnecessary services when oil prices were high before looking for new revenues.
Apparently the rainy day parade does not run through Eagle River … yet. Once further cuts to essential services and education hit the table, I have no doubt that constituents from Eagle River will join in the call for responsible consideration of revenues.
As further evidence that the rainy day parade is building, the Alaska Dispatch News just this Friday released a new poll of 651 registered voters showing “an overwhelming proportion of respondents — 93 percent — said it was either very important or somewhat important to enact a plan like Gov. Walker’s to address the state’s budget shortfall.” When looking at just GOP respondents to the poll, “71 percent of respondents still said it was very important that lawmakers enact a plan of the same sort as Walker’s, and another 22 percent said it was somewhat important.”
Key legislators who choose to ignore the growing statewide parade for action now may be doing so at their peril. Eighty-three percent of the respondents to the Rasmuson poll said they would be less likely to support legislators who take no action to fix the budget crisis. In the meantime, the opportunity remains for legislative leadership to jump in front of the parade.
• Kate Troll is a City and Borough of Juneau Assembly member. The views expressed are her own.