Since Gov. Murkowski rolled out the components of his budget plan on March 5, lawmakers and constituents from all quarters have been engaged in a very public dialogue ranging from harsh recrimination to reluctant acceptance.
Minority leaders have been especially vocal about their dissatisfaction with the approach the governor has chosen to achieve a balanced budget.
The casual observer trying to draw a bead on the substance of the discussion would soon realize the futility of the exercise and take leave until the air is cleared of the dust of partisan sniping.
Those who take a literal interest in every promise, claim, and credo espoused during a political contest are having a field day applying syntactical nuances to statements made in the 2002 campaign. The critics of Gov. Murkowski's budget plan use words such as obfuscation, bait and switch, and betrayal to punctuate their angst over what they perceive as a reversal of the his campaign promises.
Do minority leaders really believe that new oil would be flowing through the pipeline in the first three months of the new governor's watch? The governor made no such claim during his campaign.
The governor's campaign promises, like the quintessential American campaign promise, were at times lacking in substantive detail. It was his vision for the future of Alaska, however, that led to his victory. Gov. Murkowski's vision for a stronger Alaska was one built on resource development, infrastructure expansion and improved governmental efficiency, while protecting the permanent fund, fully funding education and shunning broad-based taxes.
That is the vision that the voters of Alaska overwhelmingly supported.
Certainly there is plenty to challenge in the governor's budget plan, which includes fees for studded tires, higher business licenses, an education tax, higher gasoline tax, a conservation user fee and cuts in many programs, including the longevity bonus and education.
Even legislators on the majority side have problems with some of the governor's proposals and have made it clear that they are not going to simply rubber stamp them. Many who voted for Murkowski have good reason to be disappointed over the proposed cuts in education, which many perceive to be a reversal of the pledge he made last fall.
The final determination of what happens with education funding and the rest of the governor's budget features will be left for the Legislature to debate.
High oil prices have bought a few more months for executive and legislative arms of Alaska's government to lay the groundwork for funding a budget that contains the state's spending within its means. The governor hopes to trim state spending by $55 million in this budget cycle and trim more in the next.
In the first 100 days of Gov. Murkowski's tenure, the vision is moving forward with breathtaking swiftness. The sweeping changes he promised to reform state government are well under way. The governor has assembled a cabinet of smart, experienced and focused commissioners who are hard at work streamlining the organizational structure of government, eliminating wasteful practices and seeking new funding sources in an organized, analytical and responsible way.
Since 1993 Alaska's Legislature has added 133 programs and 220 employees. Adding to the state's financial obligations are mandated programs that require increases each year, not the least of which are federal programs such as Medicare and Medicaid now forcing skyrocketing costs on every state.
The hard truth is that Alaska simply cannot afford to sustain all the social programs it has added over the years without placing a fantastic burden on each and every wage earner in the state, and taking significantly from the permanent fund. The permanent fund itself represents an important component of the state's economy.
Scaling back any social program is painful to the constituency it serves, and tests the political resolve of those who must make the ultimate choice. Even though the debate on the new budget measures has just begun, Gov. Murkowski and his team deserve praise for stepping forward with bold ideas to meet the challenge of fiscal responsibility.
In a very short time, great inroads toward better efficiencies are being made in every department of government.
Health and Social Services Commissioner Joel Gilbertson and his staff have found ways to save the state tens of millions of dollars through improved efficiencies and tapping into other funding sources.
Tom Irwin, Commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources, has submitted a budget asking for an increase in funding and staffing related to the new responsibilities her department will assume for habitat protection and coastal zone management.
The added investment in DNR will result in more efficient and consistent permitting functions and provide other far-reaching financial benefits to the state. Despite what critics are saying, Commissioner Irwin will prove that environmental protections remain as a top priority.
Alaska's financial difficulties are not unique. Due to declining federal support and rapidly escalating health-care costs, most states are placed in the position of eliminating or shifting the costs of social programs to the local level, while raising taxes aggressively to make ends meet.
Alaska is unique from all other states in two respects. The state has a big savings account and its residents have historically been spared from paying for government out of their own pockets. Even if Alaska can grow new revenues from resource development in the not too distant future, there is in all likelihood no way to avoid an increasing range of taxation.
Gov. Murkowski is holding the course on the vision he articulated in his election bid. His proposals are controversial and clearly put forth as choices for the Legislature to debate. His measures, along with others offered by the leadership of both parties, will hopefully merge into an overall plan that will sustain the highest possible level of services to the people of Alaska within affordable limits.
If this Legislature can put partisan politics aside and truly collaborate on solutions, there is still plenty of time in this session to accomplish a great deal. Developing a plan to meet the full funding needs for education would be a good place to start.
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