Feb. 22, 2002 The Anchorage Daily News urges Senate president to take the fiscal lead

Posted: Monday, February 25, 2002

When it comes to fixing the $1 billion-a-year hole in state finances, Senate President Rick Halford has his finger set firmly in the wind.

No need for broad-based taxes this legislative session, he says. Or for using Permanent Fund earnings to support state services. People aren't ready for such drastic steps, he says, citing a poll done for the House leadership last October.

There have been so many predictions of financial doom during the last 10 to 15 years that he's not sure Alaskans are ready for painful solutions. He's heard a lot from his constituents, and he knows they aren't ready.

Anyway, he says, the state's situation isn't really that bad. If there is any fiscal repair work to be done this session, in his mind the first order of business is a constitutional spending limit.

If polls and angry calls from constituents are all that matter when the Legislature makes decisions, we don't need legislators. We can use computers instead. Elected officials are supposed to use their judgment to make decisions and accept responsibility for their actions. Instead, we have a Legislature trying to put the ship of state on autopilot.

The job of fixing state finances requires leaders, not poll watchers.

Alaska has a $1 billion disconnect between the services we get from the state and the revenues to pay for them. Right now, the difference comes from cash stashed in a budget reserve account. Sometime in the next two to four years, that money will run out.

One way or another, the $1 billion hole will have to be closed, with spending cuts or new revenues. The $1 billion in state services amount to more than 5 percent of all money flowing into Alaska households each year. Whether the $1 billion gap is closed by necessity or planning, the economy will take a good-sized hit. The further ahead we plan, the softer the landing and the better the chance of taking off again in the future.

Are Alaskans ready for the necessary measures? Maybe, maybe not. But it would be irresponsible for legislators to wait until constituents force them into acting. By then it will be too late and the state's economy will crash as it did in the mid-1980s.

At that point, it will do no good for today's legislative leaders to say: ''Don't blame me. I only did what you wanted.''

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