Public brings ideas, suggestions

Posted: Thursday, October 11, 2001

Many ideas came out of a town hall meeting Tuesday at the Soldotna Senior Citizens Center to solve the looming budget gap the state of Alaska faces.

Hosted by Rep. Ken Lancaster, R-Soldotna, the meeting format allowed many of the 50 people there to make suggestions on how the state could save or make more money.

The state faces a $1 billion budget deficit come 2006.

Some people suggested capping the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend check, some suggested buying out the dividend program or instituting a statewide sales or income tax, while others just said cut the state budget even more than the $700 million cut in the last five years.

"I've been here since before statehood and I paid income tax -- it wasn't something I enjoyed, but it wasn't a hardship -- and it's something I would do again if I had to," said Gerry Brookman.

He also had strong words for people who believe the annual Alaska Permanent Fund dividend check is an entitlement.

"Some people think that the sacred, holy permanent fund dividend is the only function the state ought to have," he said. "Some people are really spoiled from getting free money from just being here and occupying space."

Michele DeMilta defended the dividend, saying, "The dividend is permanent, and that's how it should be."

She also said government does not need any more money.

"There's more government in this state than in any state in the union, except maybe Washington, D.C.," she said.

Linda Reynolds said state government has grown so large that its employees are taking care of their own best interest: continuing to grow state government.

"Why not do something about supervisors?" she asked, saying there is one supervisor over every four workers.

She also criticized teachers and other unionized government workers for wanting so much state money.

Bob Merchant criticized the Legislature for not adhering to the original plan for the permanent fund, which was to augment the state general fund as oil revenue declined.

"If the Legislature had stuck to the formula, we would not be in the straits we are in today," he said. "But the Legislature decided to play political football with the permanent fund."

Norm Blakeley said Alaskans feel no ownership because so many things are given to the people by the state and nobody wants to pay for anything themselves. He cited the Kenai Peninsula Borough Building bond vote last week as an example. The bond would have allowed the borough to add on to the overcrowded building, but it was defeated. He said now the borough will go to the state looking for money to do the expansion.

Blakeley also had one of the more far-reaching suggestions of the night. He suggested splitting the permanent fund into three pots of money. One third would go to buying out all 600,000 Alaskans with a $15,000 one-time check, one third to the Constitutional Budget Reserve to fund state services, and the last third to remain untouched and earn interest for five years before starting to pay $1,000 dividends again.

"But think about how enrollment would drop with the exodus that would follow (the $15,000 check)," said Kenai Peninsula School Board President, Deborah Germano.

"If people are here only for the dividend, maybe they ought to leave," Blakeley responded.

Fred Sturman suggested moving the Legislature out of Juneau, but not into a new building. Instead, he said the legislative session could be held in June, July and August in vacant schools around the state.

Sam Kaser suggested firing every state employee who made a six-figure income.

"I don't look at state employees as being worth six figures. Most people in this category are just drones with nothing to do but find ways to spend money," he said. "I hear a lot of talk about where we can get more money, but let's talk about ways not to spend so dog-gone much."

He also advocated turning down money from the federal government because it "comes with so many strings attached, it's not worth it."

Helen Rohlman wanted the Legislature to get its business done in Juneau quicker.

"Why does it take the Legislature two months to pass anything?" she asked.

Sammy Crawford said an income tax and a cap on the dividend were options that should be explored to provide more money for state services. A school board member, she added that while cuts might still be made in state spending, education has been cut to the bone.

Mike Frost said he did not see the logic in creating a new state agency to collect taxes, be it income or sales, when there is already a state agency that gives a billion dollars to residents each year.

"I can't see you sending me a check and me turning around and sending you a check," he said.

He suggested putting a limit on the rate of government growth.

Betsy Arbelovsky said she does not want to see the dividend program ended, but suggested a cap of $1,000. That would realize an instant savings of $500 million.

"In the 20 years I've been here, I've found that Alaskans are very generous," said John Wensley. "But the bigger the permanent fund dividend has become, the more greedy people have become."

Steve Horn had two comments and two suggestions.

"I am disappointed in a state that will not fund a first-class education system," he said.

He also decried the lack of a statesman in Alaska, saying "the political machine in Juneau is broken."

He suggested creating a one-chamber, or "unicameral," legislature with 60 representatives. He also said the Legislature should create a budget for two years at a time.

"Rep. (Drew) Scalzi of Homer has a unicameral bill together, but I'm not sure if he's brave enough to introduce it, though," Lancaster said.

Lancaster closed the meeting by saying a fiscal plan is not just about money.

"It's about growing the state into the 21st century."

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