Those trying to set state's sails on new course deserve help

Posted: Sunday, June 01, 2003

"The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails."

William Arthur Ward

In case you haven't noticed, the winds of change are blowing across Alaska.

It's most evident in the economy of the state and its individual communities. The boom times are over. The days of more money than the state knew what to do with are gone. The times when the state could dole out money for every well-intentioned, visionary idea that came down the pike have faded into history.

Alaskans have been talking about the state's changing economic reality for several years now, but mostly all they've done is talk.

The way they talk gives credence to the truth of the words of William Arthur Ward, an American college administrator who lived between 1921 and 1994.

There are those Alaskans who complain about the changing times. Into this crowd falls those Alaskans who blame "big government" for the state's financial woes. Alaskans' desire to see no changes from the good ol' days of lots of oil money, of course, has nothing to do with the current state of affairs.

Then, there are those Alaskans the optimists who believe something will change soon to deliver the state from its economic quandary: another Prudhoe Bay-like oil discovery or at least the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development or a gas line project or, better yet, all of the above. They hold onto the false expectation that something, anything will happen to spare them from the difficult decisions that must be made.

And, then, there are those Alaskans who are trying to adjust the sails of the state's economy to match the prevailing winds. It's not just a changing economy that buffets their attempts. It also some Alaskans' unchanging attitudes.

Examples at all levels of government abound.

In the state arena, there was the most recent discussion about a statewide sales tax. Legislators balked at approving the tax, which Gov. Frank Murkowski sought. As a result, the governor is poised to make substantial cuts to the state budget. It's easy to understand the reluctance of lawmakers to approve the sales tax it would hurt lower-income Alaskans as well those communities that already have a sales tax in place but what's not so easy to understand is lawmakers' failure to set the state's economic sails in a new direction, or any direction at all. They left that task almost entirely in the hands of the governor. In doing so, they shirked their primary responsibility, which raises the question: Why does the state need 60 legislators especially if this is what happens when the Republican stars are aligned? It would be a lot simpler and cheaper, if Alaskans just left those thorny budget decisions and everything else in the hands of the governor.

On the local level, there's the budget gap being faced by the city of Kenai. Unlike the state, which has had budget troubles for years, Kenai's budget woes are new and not of the city's making. If the stars were aligned for smooth sailing in this past legislative session, then the meteorites have been staging to hit Kenai one after another. There's been the hit of low-interest rates. The loss of the Big Kmart store. Less money from the state. Steep increases in the Public Employees Retirement System. Spikes in what the city must pay for insurance.

As the city council and administration have made efforts to adjust the city's sails, they've encountered a storm of protest, particularly in proposed changes to the operation of the Kenai Recreation Center.

Ditto for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, where declining student enrollment and state funding, have created difficult times so difficult that the district will operate with at least 55 fewer teachers next year. If that's not bad enough, school consolidations and the loss of extracurricular activities are real possibilities.

Just as has happened in Kenai, news of possible changes within the district has created its own gale-force winds with which school officials must now contend.

Which brings us to this: Lively debate is a necessary part of our government. It results in better decisions. But at some point, elected officials and hired administrators must be left to do their jobs and set the sails.

There never will be a time when all Alaskans agree on what needs to be done to get state government on firm financial ground. It's obvious, however, something needs to be done differently. So, let's do something even if it's wrong. There are few decisions that once made can't be tweaked and made a little better. It's also a lot easier to change course midstream than to continue to wait for the perfect conditions, which are unlikely ever to exist, before ever leaving the dock.

Decisions being proposed at the various levels of government are attempts to set Alaska's sails in line with prevailing economic winds. None of the suggested routes are easy, but all are better than sitting becalmed.

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