Early Friday morning, people around the world took time out of their lives to celebrate the start of another new year. We celebrate because promise and potential are one of the most valuable things we know. The start of a new year is a chance to refresh and renew, a chance to look ahead to new accomplishments and events. We can’t know what the coming year will bring, but we can try to predict it. If 2015 was a gloomy year of rain and murder, 2016 will be a year of change and transition.
These are our predictions, offered in no particular order:
• The Alaska Legislature will hold multiple special sessions. Facing titanic issues including a constitutional amendment for the trans-Alaska natural gas pipeline and the state’s continued fiscal trouble, we expect the Alaska Legislature to go well beyond its 90-day regular session. It has already been the Legislature’s pattern to go beyond the 90-day limit with the annual budget process, and this year’s issues will demand even more time than the “normal” overtime.
• Marijuana won’t be a significant issue. While the legalization of recreational pot has continued to generate headlines, we expect its rollout this year to be relatively low-key. Based on the timeline approved by voters — and the limitations of the cultivation cycle — the first legal sales will not take place any sooner than August. Tourists seeking legal pot will be out of luck, and municipalities across the state will have most of a year to get ready for commercialization, easing the transition to legality. This could all be thrown out the window, however, if the Alaska Legislature muddies the picture with new legislation or if the Alaska Department of Law finds flaws in regulations passed by the state’s Marijuana Control Board.
• Bernie Sanders will get Alaska’s Democratic nomination; Donald Trump won’t get the most votes in Alaska’s Republican poll. It’s too early to say who Alaskans will pick from the crowded Republican field, but we expect Alaska Democrats to pick Bernie Sanders in their March 26 caucus. In 2008, Hillary Clinton received only one-quarter of the Democratic caucus vote; Barack Obama received three-quarters. Alaskans have tended to favor nontraditional candidates, and that leads us to believe Sanders will get Alaska’s nod.
Conversely, it is too early to tell who will get Alaska’s delegates from the Republican preference poll on March 1. At this point, we do not believe Donald Trump will come out on top. While he is riding high nationwide, Alaskans seem to be favoring other candidates, at least according to the scattered polls available to us. There’s plenty of room for things to change before March 1, however, and keep in mind that Alaska isn’t a winner-take-all state — its delegates to the national Republican convention are awarded in proportion to the number of votes a candidate received in the March 1 poll. Regardless of the results in March and the results of the convention, the Republican candidate will win Alaska in November. None of the Democratic candidates have enough support in Alaska to reverse the state’s traditional support of Republicans for the presidency.
• Rep. Don Young and Sen. Lisa Murkowski will be re-elected by large margins. Similarly, we expect no surprises in the state’s federal elections this fall. Young will have served in the House for more than 43 years by the time of the November election, and barring health problems or significant scandal, he will continue to serve. In 2015, he bucked the claims of those — including this newspaper — who said he was no longer effective in the House. Last week, the Washington Post named him the fifth most-effective member of the House during the year. Sen. Murkowski, who won her last election with a write-in campaign, will need no such extraordinary effort this year. Though she is certain to face a primary challenger from the right, she has been raising money at a successful rate, and her position as chairwoman of the Senate Resources Committee gives her clout that would be difficult for a challenger to overcome.
• Republicans will keep majorities in the Alaska House and Senate. In state elections, we expect the House and Senate Republican majorities to continue, though they will shrink. The retirements of a handful of longtime legislators will open the door for competitive races in the Railbelt, but the redistricting process after the 2010 U.S. census reduced the ability of an individual election to create wide swings in power.
• Oil prices will not rebound. Barring another war in the oil-exporting regions of the Middle East, oil prices will not go up in 2016. The falling price of renewable energy and the widespread growth of fracking have reduced demand for, and increased the supply of, oil. Unless the world’s economy surges in growth, supply will continue to outstrip demand, and prices will remain low. This will prevent significant drilling in federal waters off Alaska’s Arctic coast.
• Alaska’s long-term budget issues will not be solved. With 2016 an election year, there will be a natural pressure in the Alaska Legislature to avoid action on a long-term solution to the state’s fiscal problems. While Gov. Bill Walker has proposed a sweeping plan to bring the budget into balance, we predict it will find less traction than it should in the Legislature, where lawmakers have been reluctant to consider new taxes. Last year, for example, a 0.95-cent increase in the tax on gasoline passed the Legislature by a single vote. Rather than pass a comprehensive budget-balancing plan, the Legislature will cut the budget some more, perhaps pass some minor tax increases, then balance the year’s budget by spending from the state’s savings accounts.