The legislative session that finally -- yet without much resolution -- came to a close this week should go down as one of the most ineffective in recent memory. This was a Legislature that came into session with a whole laundry list of important issues to tackle. Every opportunity existed for strong leadership to emerge and steer Alaska in a direction that would address the economic realities of today and tomorrow.
Instead, partisan bickering, closed-door sessions and, ultimately, denial of the need to address our state's fiscal future, marked the extended session. The House was not perfect, but it did make some major strides on several key issues. In turn, the Senate more often than not blocked those efforts.
By far, the biggest disappointment of the session was the Legislature's inability to pass through both chambers a revenue plan that would prepare the state for the economic realities that are soon to come. For decades now, state government has relied on oil revenues to cover the costs of state services. But declining oil production and unstable prices mean we must find a way to bring stability and long-term planning to the budget process.
The House went a long way toward trying to accomplish that by passing a three-tiered plan that would have instituted an income tax that mimicked a sales tax, tapped into a portion of investment earnings from the Alaska Permanent Fund and increased the state alcohol tax. It would have virtually filled the almost $1 billion projected budget shortfall. Certainly, it wasn't flawless, but it was a strong plan that addressed many concerns and it deserved at least a look from the Senate. Instead, senators stubbornly refused and allowed the plan to die, passing only the alcohol tax. The $20 million that will be raised from that is but a drop in the proverbial bucket.
Higher education funding -- another issue so vital to our state's future -- quickly became a political football. The House not only refused to increase funding at the level University of Alaska officials requested, they cut funding by refusing an increase to cover inflation. This is one time the Senate stepped up to at least prevent disaster: It approved an $8 million increase that led the way for the same amount to be approved in conference committee. While that is far short of the almost $17 million increase the university requested, at least it will allow the university to tread water.
One particularly disappointing, yet not surprising, incident was the Senate's refusal to reauthorize the Regulatory Commission of Alaska. Much earlier in the session, the House passed a bill to reauthorize the commission, which among other duties regulates rates charged by pipelines and utilities. The mission of the commission is to protect consumer interests by ensuring affordable, reliable utility and pipeline services and ensuring that this infrastructure is adequate to meet the state's needs. By most accounts, the commission does its job well. Even though critics willing to voice their opinions about the board publicly were hard to find, a few senators, led by Sen. Robin Taylor, R-Wrangell, were able to band together to stop action. Because they were unable to resolve this important issue, the Legislature will be returning June 24 to deal with it in special session.
The state budget that ultimately was passed for next year includes a whole slate of worrisome points. But one in particular raises serious concerns for the state, particularly as we head into the busy summer tourist season. The Legislature handed the state Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation a more than 3 percent budget cut, which will force the division to eliminate ranger positions and close several parks including possibly two in the Interior: Chena River State Recreation Site and Lower Chatanika River State Recreation Area. While many tourists do visit to enjoy Alaska's outdoors, it will be state residents who are more likely to be directly affected by the possible loss of these parks.
Although early on it looks as if the elimination of state food and restaurant inspections was going to be hard to stop, this was one case where the Senate stepped up and reinstated the program. That cutting this important program was a bad idea should have been a no-brainer for the Legislature. But not this year.
The governor's subsistence bill was doomed from the start. Support even from the usual camps was lukewarm. While this paper has stood philosophically behind a statewide vote, this latest plan didn't elicit support from our board. Until the political makeup of the Legislature is determined next fall, it is unlikely that this stalemate will go anywhere.
So many other examples exist of where this session either went wrong or was simply derailed for a while. But with any luck some issues, such as the regulatory commission reauthorization, will be resolved in the later special session.
Other issues, such as long-term fiscal planning, will have to wait another year. Maybe by then legislators will find the incentive to put aside party politics and responsibly resolve the state's fiscal situation. It certainly didn't happen this year.
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