Legislators still have time to do right by Alaskans

Posted: Friday, May 10, 2002

With the clock soon to run out on the 22nd Alaska State Legislature -- the last day is scheduled for Tuesday -- lots of Alaskans are wondering just what will be accomplished this year.

There are two possibilities.

1. Legislators will return home with an incredible success story. In the final days of the legislative session, lawmakers put aside political partisanship and approved a long-range fiscal plan for the state.

2. Legislators will return home saying they did all they could do, but the state is no closer to a long-range fiscal plan than when the session started in January. In other words, partisanship won, and Alaska and Alaskans lost.

If the Legislature does adjourn without a long-range fiscal plan it won't be for lack of trying on the part of some legislators. A bipartisan group of legislators has been working since early last year as the Fiscal Policy Caucus to come up with solutions to the state's fiscal woes. At every opportunity, those involved have pushed their colleagues toward tough decisions that might make their re-election difficult -- for example, an income tax, use of the earnings of the Alaska Permanent Fund and an increase in the alcohol tax.

No matter what happens in the final days of the session, these lawmakers deserve praise for their attempts to close a budget gap projected at nearly $1 billion by the next fiscal year. In fact, in a vote lauded as historic, House lawmakers last week approved an income tax; they also OK'd a plan to use millions in permanent fund earnings to help close the state's budget gap and approved a measure raising the alcohol tax.

It is worth noting that Kenai Peninsula Reps. Ken Lancaster, R-Soldotna, and Drew Scalzi, R-Homer, both of whom have been active in the Fiscal Policy Caucus, voted "yes" for the tax and permanent fund measures. Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, voted "no." All three peninsula representatives voted for the increase in the alcohol tax.

The Senate has not acted on the measures.

What's unfortunate is that lawmakers who are working to close the state's fiscal gap will be painted by some as "tax-and-spend liberals" who raided the permanent fund. Those who are working for their own re-election will talk about how they opposed an income tax and voted to protect the permanent fund. What they will say makes for great re-election sound bites.

But who has worked for the best interest of Alaskans?

Certainly those lawmakers who have pushed for tough decisions have nothing to gain for all their hard work -- except a financially sound state. And isn't that the No. 1 priority of the Alaskans who sent them to Juneau? Isn't that the one accomplishment by which they could measure their success this session?

The unwillingness of some lawmakers -- in other words, the Alaska Senate -- to do right by Alaska just isn't understandable.

Senators' refusal to act on measures that would give the state some long-term financial stability sends a confusing message to Alaskans -- namely, there's no problem. The evidence, however, says just the opposite.

According to the state Department of Revenue, Alaska will have a $826.7 million budget shortfall in July. Past shortfalls have been filled by the state's Constitutional Budget Reserve, which is expected to run dry in 2004.

Spending caps and cuts alone will not fill the gap, and the longer lawmakers take to act on the problem the tougher it will be to fix.

There are still five days until the end of the session. While the last-minute rush to get things done is deplorable, there still is time for the Senate to act.

Senators should be encouraged to step up to the plate and approve legislation that would put the state on financially sound ground. Write. Call. E-mail. Let them know Alaskans are tough enough to handle the pain of taxes and other revenue measures. Are Senators tough enough to do what needs to be done?

As baseball great Yogi Berra said: It ain't over till it's over.

Alaskans can still hope that when the Legislature adjourns Tuesday lawmakers will have done the right thing.

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