In its relatively short history, the Alaska Legislature has overseen -- and initiated -- some major changes that have shaped Alaskans' every day lives.
With a long-range fiscal plan and subsistence solution identified by both voters and lawmakers as high priority concerns, the state is at a crossroads. But it remains to be seen in which direction the Legislature will choose to go when the new session convenes today.
Despite the changing nature of issues from session to session, one former Kenai Peninsula legislator says the bottom line always remains the same.
"Ninety percent of what government does is about spending money," said Hugh Malone, who represented Kenai in the state House from 1972-84.
However, there are different opinions about how that money should be spent, and the measure of a particular legislature's success often is viewed in terms of the results of that spending.
Some years, policy changes enacted by the Legislature have been sweeping and progressive, while other years have seen little or no substantive movement.
Many factors determine the outcome of any legislative session, but there is never any guarantee about which way it will go.
"It's the luck of the draw," said Malone, a Democrat who lives in Juneau now. "From time to time, you'll have a legislature where people want to work together, where they're thoughtful and altruistic. Other times it won't be as good. On the average, it's just average."
Another former peninsula lawmaker said recent years have seen legislatures closer to the low end of the scale. Citing the deadlock over a subsistence solution, Clem Tillion of Halibut Cove said the most recent Legislature, in particular, did not rate highly.
"The last Legislature was not a very good one. When they turned down that constitutional amendment (and turned control over to the federal government), they shot themselves in the foot," said Tillion, a Republican, who served in the House from 1963-74 and in the Senate from 1975-80.
"You have an urban mentality that knows wilderness by the Disney Channel. It's not that they don't mean to do well, they just don't understand."
If social and economic landmarks are an accurate measure, the sessions that Tillion and Malone served in the Legislature were much closer to the above average end of the progress scale. During that time, some of the state's most transforming actions were taken. The trans-Alaska pipeline was conceived and built, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conserva-tion Act and the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act were both placed on the books and the Alaska Permanent Fund was born.
Years later, the state is left with a legacy, of sorts, that has both a positive and negative side. Among the problems, allocation of the state's fish and game resources is, arguably, of greatest interest to Bush residents, many of whom rely on a subsistence lifestyle. But how the state solves its fiscal dilemma and carves its fiscal pie will have tremendous impact on all areas of Alaska.
"Hard questions need to be answered," Malone said. "It seems to me that in recent years the Legislature has taken the opportunity to skirt the real issues that will affect the lives of real Alaskans in the next five years."
Tillion agreed and said he believed the rebound in the price of oil will keep legislators from addressing a long-range fiscal plan again this session, a choice he said would not be good for the state.
"What do you do when the price of oil goes down? Have you faced up to what you need to do?" asked Tillion, a proponent of an income and statewide sales tax. "I don't believe in free rides. Period. To not have any taxation and to run totally off the oil companies develops a gimme personality."
The real power toward positive change, Tillion said, belongs to voters.
"If you elect good people, you'll get good legislation. You don't realize how shabby your neighbors are until you see what legislators they elect," said Tillion. "The people get exactly what they deserve. I just don't think my grandchildren can afford it."
He said the state has benefited greatly from its relationship with oil companies, but the Alaska Permanent Fund and the perceived sanctity of the annual dividend it pays out to citizens does not foster a healthy attitude toward growth.
"We've spent (state revenues) recklessly. We've gotten people to think this is an entitlement," Tillion said. "If you didn't earn it with the sweat of your brow, you're not entitled to it."
Malone agreed that the state leans too heavily on oil revenue.
"We are dependent on the financial and business decisions of organizations like BP and Exxon, whose real interests have very little in common with ours," he said. "We see decisions made in our politics that are direct results of their influences that have almost no utility to us.
"And that's the difficulty of being dependent on oil. It turns you into a company town where the company's calling the shots."
He said it is incumbent on the Legislature to lead the way to a long-term plan that promotes greater economic diversification and self-sufficiency.
"I think it would be worthwhile for the Legislature to look around the world and see where people have taken advantage of high-tech industries," he said. "We need a literate public, decent public services, decent places to live and transportation and communications that are the best you can get."
Tillion also said there is much the new Legislature can do to improve the long-term health of the state, if only it acts with courage.
"I'm hopeful about his session. I don't think we're doing badly," he said. "I think the bulk of the legislators will want to do right. Some will be cowardly, and some will be greedy. But cowardice is the biggest crime. If you have no guts, why be there?"
Peninsula Clarion ©2013. All Rights Reserved.