Alaska's $1 billion-a-year fiscal gap is a convenient bogeyman for anti-government ideologues in the Legislature. It gives them a ready excuse to attack any government activity they don't like. ''How can we afford (fill in the blank),'' they can say, ''when we have a shortfall of $1 billion a year?''
It's a cynical argument. The shortfall is real enough, all right. But ordinary Alaskans pay virtually no state taxes. State government's single biggest expense is paying cash handouts to every man, woman and child who lives here more than one year. Alaska can afford to fix its fiscal problem without pillaging the poor.
Nonetheless, the ''money is short'' argument is being used to justify attacks on aid to the poor. The Senate is scheduled to consider a bill that would make it easier to slash anti-poverty programs.
Under current law, if the Legislature wants to cut the benefits of needy individuals or families, it would have to pass a separate bill, which the governor might then veto.
The bill headed to the Senate floor (SB182) would let the Legislature automatically cut benefits simply by withholding the funds required to serve everyone who needs help. That's a quieter and less obvious way to do the dirty work. It lets lawmakers avoid having to stand in plain view of the public and explain why they think benefit cuts are justified.
Alaska already has made it harder for people to stay on the dole. Reform measures passed five years ago have cut the rolls by 40 percent. Rather than simply throw people off, the reforms steer clients into the work force with a mix of incentives and limitations. A five-year limit on drawing welfare was combined with work incentives, such as health care coverage and child care aid. That balance has enabled the state to shrink rolls without inflicting undue harm.
Alaska has the means to provide a decent level of help to the needy, now and in the future. This proposal is not only evasive; it's embarrassing. Alaska has already cut costs with successful welfare reforms; Alaska doesn't need a law that makes it easier for legislators to make life harder for the poor.
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