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Style versus substance: What Alaska needs right now is a long-range fiscal plan

Voices of the State

Posted: Tuesday, April 03, 2007

In 1837 Hans Christian Andersen penned his classic tale, “The Emperor’s New Suit.” A story about a politician so consumed about appearance, he attempts to persuade his constituents into believing thin air is actually a magnificent fabric. Style versus substance.

For the last 170 years, Andersen’s fable has provided a forgettable metaphor for politicians who rely on selling the sizzle instead of the steak. After all, it’s better for your approval ratings to be pictured reading to Alaska’s school children versus eliminating funding for their reading programs. Final score: Style 1 Substance 0.

During last year’s gubernatorial election, candidates traveled the state telling voters how they planned to meet the challenges facing Alaska. How do you pay for the rising cost of state government with oil production declining? If you’re going to cut the budget, where are you going to cut the budget? And what’s the best way to successfully negotiate a deal to get Alaska’s natural gas to market?

Some candidates were specific, some were vague and some never answered.

After a spirited campaign, Alaskans elected a new governor with a mandate to usher in an era of truth and transparency. With a little more than 100 days in office, Gov. Sarah Palin has wowed crowds and proposed two significant policies for Alaska’s future.

The first policy is her proposed budget. In short, it’s the governor’s fiscal plan that shows how the state’s finances will be invested and managed. Unfortunately, Palin’s fiscal plan ignores every known economic reality facing Alaska.

Last month in a speech to the Alaska Legislature, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski said what we all expected to hear, no more handouts. For the last decade, Alaska has relied on our congressional delegation to fund programs the state should be funding. However, with a growing national debt and increasing demands on the federal budget, Murkowski said Alaska needs to start reaching in its own pockets before reaching out to D.C.

Last week in a speech to the Alaska Legislature, U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens delivered the same message. He even went so far as to say Congress might cut off funding for the Denali Commission unless the state begins to contribute matching investment dollars.

Even after hearing her own commissioners testify publicly that Alaska could return to deficit spending as soon as next year -- and oh by the way, many departments in state government are severely underfunded -- the governor’s response was to propose smoke and mirror budget cuts to the Legislature. Again, style wins in a landslide.

So let’s agree to start the truth and transparency era by being honest. The campaign is over, the challenges are real and it’s time to lead. Alaska now needs substance from a governor who already has proven she has style.

The issue of Alaska’s fiscal stability and state budget support has become the most serious challenge facing Alaska. Cost shifts and unfunded mandates are starting to break the backs of local tax bases. By the year 2010, local communities in Alaska will be spending $50 million a year just to subsidize the cost of senior citizen property tax exemptions.

Given the fact that revenues are projected to decline while the cost of government will continue to increase, isn’t it time for truth and transparency about the consequences if we continue to ignore basic economics?

It’s time to address the rising costs to Alaska’s economy due to the state’s inability to sustain investments in education, public safety and health care. With revenues from a natural gas pipeline more than a decade away, style alone is not going to pay the bills.

What Alaska needs is a long-range fiscal plan, not Enron style accounting tricks. A sustainable revenue sharing plan to stabilize the financial health of Alaska communities and provide real local tax relief. And an aggressive commitment to funding education to meet the growing competitive challenges for Alaska’s school districts and our university system.

A lot of promises were made on the campaign trail. Many were made without an explanation of how they’d be financed. Alaskans turn their eyes to you Gov. Palin. Show us the fabric of your fiscal leadership.

Andrew Halcro is a former Republican state legislator who ran for governor in 2006 as an Independent. He can be reached at ahalcro@andrewhalcro.com.



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