March 15, 2002 The Peninsula Clarion says Alaskans know the score on budget gap

Posted: Monday, March 18, 2002

Legislators who continue to think that Alaskans don't believe the state budget crisis is real might have been surprised by the testimony received by the House Finance Committee this week on its proposed $2.2 billion operating budget.

It appears Alaskans not only are willing to pay for state services, but they are wary about cuts -- make that more cuts.

Oh, and they want a long-range budget plan.

In other words, Alaskans get it, while some legislators do not.

For too long, Alaskans have lived with the ''sky is falling'' scenario before a budget is approved. Cuts that would affect public health and safety -- for example, doing away with state food inspectors or eliminating some trooper positions -- are proposed. Cuts that would close state parks, in turn damaging the tourist-based economy, are threatened. Cuts that hurt those least able to speak for themselves -- children -- are bandied about with seemingly little thought as to what those cuts will cost in the long run.

It's a lousy way to do business. It's one of the reasons Alaskans are cynical about the process. And it's a primary reason that a long-range budget plan is needed -- that and the $865 million budget gap.

It's putting the cart before the horse to approve a budget -- even one for next year -- before a long-range plan is in place. Ask any business owner: first comes the goal; then the plan to reach the goal; and then the budget that matches the plan to reach the goal.

What's Alaska's goal? To hear some legislators talk about it, it seems the only goal is to make sure next year's budget numbers are less than this year's. As long as the numbers look and sound good, it doesn't seem to matter if some cuts will cost the state federal matching dollars or if they will have long-term costs. And some cuts will have long-range costs that are hard to quantify. A cure is always more expensive than prevention, but prevention takes planning.

A numbers goal is hardly visionary, and it borders on irresponsible. It certainly lacks the pioneering spirit for which the ''Last Frontier'' should be known.

Alaska's goal should be focused on changing the lives of Alaskans for the better. Education and public health and safety are musts. Funding for them should be a priority. If anything deserves more money, it's certainly education. The future will be grim indeed if the state fails to make the proper investments in education -- in other words, in its children.

Alaska's budget gap doesn't mean the state should abandon its vision of a top-notch education system from kindergarten through the university level; a safe place for all residents to live; a healthy environment; and a thriving economy.

Testimony from Kenai Peninsula residents this week provides encouragement that Alaskans can have it all because they are willing to be a part of the solution. As one Homer resident so aptly said: Legislators ''underestimate our willingness to pitch in and fix the problem.''

Alaskans apparently are not as afraid of the ''t'' word (taxes, you know) as legislators are. Their testimony indicates Alaskans are more worried about how budget cuts will hurt their neighbors and all Alaskans' quality of life than they are about paying for some of the services they receive from government.

That doesn't mean they want more government. For years, however, legislators have been in a budget-cutting mode. For all their efforts, the state is still facing an $865 million budget gap. Guess all those cuts just weren't enough. And more cuts alone won't bridge the gap.

As the state's Fiscal Policy Caucus has said, bridging the budget gap will require cuts, financial discipline and new revenue -- read that, taxes.

Alaskans seem willing to do their part to bridge the gap. It's up to legislators now.

The first step should be approving a long-range financial plan and then setting next year's budget.

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