Legislators must make tough calls on fiscal gap, sooner rather than later

Posted: Tuesday, January 06, 2004

In short order, decisions about state finances won't be able to be put off until next year.

Soon it will be this year.

The Legislature returns to work Jan. 12 and will again confront the issue of the state's recurring annual budget shortfalls. Once legislators assemble in Juneau, talk will turn to Gov. Frank Murkowski's proposed budget and to what extent to modify it to suit the Legislature. Some will assail the governor's suggested cuts and fees. Others will try to steer the debate to a statewide tax. Discussion will, at some point, turn to a proposal to modify the way by which legislators have access to the Alaska Permanent Fund.

Those with wisdom and foresight might try to place the debate in the context of future years, not just the next fiscal cycle.

Alaskans should want their elected officials to take a wider view. And they should want them to do more than talk. The Legislature must pass measures that will put the state's finances in order for years to come. And these must be items based on substance and not hope.

One such item looming large in the coming session is the proposed change to the permanent fund. The idea, known as the Percent of Market Value, has long been sought by the fund's board of trustees as a way to stabilize the dividend at a substantial level, guarantee the fund will be guarded against inflation and provide a fairly predictable source of revenue for government spending. It has a number of legislative supporters and has the backing of the governor.

But since the idea is a constitutional amendment, it must gain voter approval. For the idea to help close the expected budget gaps soon, the amendment must be placed on the November 2004 ballot. Some say, however, that political considerations may prompt some to try placing it on the 2006 ballot instead.

Waiting two years is just another example of an unfortunate state of affairs that grips the Legislature from one session to the next. The desire for political gain, a quest of both major parties, is often placed ahead of the state's well-being, it seems. Already Alaskans hear their legislators repeatedly say that major decisions cannot be made in an election year, of which next year is one. Politics prevents it, senators and representatives say. No one wants to risk angering voters.

Perhaps, though, the rising fiscal pressure will force some hard decisions in the Legislature, regardless of the election cycle. And if those choices finally do get made and the budget problems are therefore solved, Alaskans should reward those who chose to risk their political lives.

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

Dec. 31

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