Special session can be avoided; time to act is now

Posted: Sunday, May 09, 2004

It was only a short time ago when popular wisdom proclaimed it was the dawn of a new age of cooperation in Alaska politics. The Republican stars had aligned perfectly. There was a Republican in the governor's office. Republicans held the majority of seats in both the Alaska House and Senate. There was a Republican in the White House, not to mention Alaska's GOP congressional delegation. By golly, things would be different; great things would be accomplished.

Most Alaskans still are waiting to see some benefit from the alignment of those Republican stars. They're waiting to see something, anything, happen. They're wanting some evidence that politics as usual isn't. With adjournment of the second session of the 23rd Alaska State Legislature set for Tuesday, it's unlikely they'll get it.

Of course, in the waning hours of the legislative session anything can happen, and it often does, but on the most important issue facing Alaska today a long-term financial plan here's how cooperation Alaska-style is shaping up:

House lawmakers approved a spending cap and a constitutional amendment that gives the Legislature permission to spend earnings from the permanent fund to help pay for government services. Called the "percent of market value" amendment, the measure would let the state spend up to 5 percent of the fund's five-year average each year. Both measures still must be approved by voters. The Kenai Peninsula's legislative delegation is divided on the POMV issue. Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, voted in favor of the measure. Reps. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, and Kelly Wolf, R-Kenai, voted against it. The three voted for the constitutional spending cap.

At the end of the week, the Senate appeared to be at an impasse over how best to close Alaska's budget gap. Senate Democrats rejected the spending cap on Thursday and Friday after Senate Republicans said no to their request to exempt education funding from the cap. On Friday, Senate lawmakers voted against the permanent fund proposal, although it was possible the measure could be reconsidered on Saturday.

Gov. Frank Murkowski has threatened to veto an increase in education funding if legislators don't approve new taxes or agree to let voters decide whether to use permanent fund earnings to help pay for the cost of government services.

Talk of taxes also has divided officials and Alaskans. The governor is opposed to an income tax. Municipalities, including the Kenai Peninsula Borough, which already impose a sales tax, are opposed to a statewide sales tax. The Senate has rejected a proposed 3 percent statewide sales tax but passed an increase in the tobacco tax. The governor has called the $1 a pack increase a ''must-pass'' bill for him. So far, the tobacco tax is stuck in a House committee.

Because no solution appears in sight, a special session appears increasingly likely. But if the issue can be resolved in a special session, then it can be resolved now before legislators adjourn.

The inability of the House, Senate and Gov. Murkowski to reach some kind of agreement on a fiscal plan for the state raises all kinds of questions. Are they on some political power trip that sees negotiation as a sign of weakness? Are they voting their conscience or positioning themselves for re-election? Are they putting the best interests of all Alaskans above their own?

The reluctance of the Senate to approve a spending cap and percent of market value proposal is particularly troubling. Both of these measures still must be approved by Alaskans. Why should the Senate be afraid to put them on the ballot? If they go down in flames, so be it. If they pass, Alaskans have had their say, and lawmakers then will have their permission to use fund earnings to help pay for the cost of government services.

Legislators have had years of opportunities to remedy the financial problems facing the state today. For the most part, they've taken the easy road. They've hesitated to institute broad-based taxes and they've refused to use part of the earnings of the fund to help pay for government even though they have the legal authority to do just that. Sure, they've made cuts, but those cuts have reduced the quality of life in Alaska to the point where, as the Conference of Alaskans noted earlier this year "... state spending is inadequate to meet current needs for public education, public protection and many other necessary state services."

It's not too late for lawmakers to stop quibbling and agree that Alaska voters deserve to vote on a spending cap and using permanent fund earnings to help pay for some of the costs of state government. Anything less is a disservice to Alaskans and courts economic disaster.

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