Legislators seeking residents' ideas on key money matters

Posted: Sunday, November 16, 2003

"The people," as in "we, the people," often criticize government officials for not listening to them, for taking government out of their hands.

While that may be true at times, government officials also have a valid concern: Many of "the people" never take time to participate in the political process. Sure, they'll complain after policy is developed, but they sit on the sidelines while the real work is being done. Much of the public never takes the time to become educated about an issue, but that doesn't stop a lot of "the people" from speaking out on it.

This week, government officials are making a trip to the central Kenai Peninsula to involve residents here in one of the most important issues now facing the state: Alaska's financial situation.

Members of the House Finance Committee and the Special Committee on Ways and Means will conduct a public meeting from 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday in the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly chambers in Soldotna. As a press release announcing the meeting put it, the event provides residents with the opportunity "to participate in the committee process as state fiscal policy is developed."

It's an invitation borough residents should not pass up.

Legislators are asking for the public's views on the state's finances. They are looking for solutions and direction from those who elected them to office. They are even making it easy for Alaskans to participate by having this dialogue in communities across the state.

That legislators are trying to deal with the gap between revenue and expenses should be a hopeful sign to all Alaskans. That they are gathering ideas now before the legislative session begins in January is evidence that they want to begin work in earnest on this critical issue early during the session and not wait until the waning days of the session.

The public does need to steer this debate over state budget issues, but for the public to provide a wise course requires it to do some research and become knowledgeable about the issues that are facing legislators. Thursday's meeting offers that opportunity. For example, Robert Bartholomew of the Alaska Permanent Fund Corp. is scheduled to talk about a proposal that would change the way the fund is managed. Called the percent of market value, or POMV, proposal, the change is a recommendation by the fund's board of trustees. Among other things, the proposal offers constitutional inflation-proofing protection of the entire fund, a spending limit by limiting funds available for appropriations and improved stability during volatile markets in the year-to-year amounts available for appropriation.

The first hour of Thursday's meeting will be devoted to the permanent fund, while the remainder of the meeting will focus on broader fiscal issues.

There are signs that Alaskans may be ready to commit to a course of financial action beyond "cut the budget," "no taxes" and "don't touch my dividend."

During recent public testimony before the Alaska Senate and House Health, Education and Social Services committees, the vast majority of testimony centered around the themes that the state has cut enough, those cuts are hurting and many Alaskans are willing to pay an income tax to help resolve the state's budget dilemma.

Legislators need to hear more.

Are you willing to pay an income tax? If so, Thursday offers the opportunity for legislators to hear that. Have you been hurt by budget cuts? If so, here's the chance to let legislators know how. Do you think an income tax is better than a sales tax? Then, say so. Thursday would be a good time. Do you see places where the state should cut more funding? What about places where more funding is needed? What role, if any, should the permanent fund play in helping to close the fiscal gap? What about ways to raise revenue?

Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, co-chair of the state House Ways and Means Committee, noted earlier this year during a hearing in Fairbanks, the state's budget would have to be reduced by 25 percent in order to balance it with a cut.

Hawker has presented a five-fold strategy to bridge the state's budget gap that includes:

Controlling government costs;

Promoting economic development;

Increasing existing taxes or instituting a new broad-based tax;

Instituting a mechanism to mitigate rapid changes in oil prices; and

Using the so-called POMV proposal that would allow some permanent fund money to be used for government.

It's a sound strategy, but will Alaskans support it?

Alaskans should not give up their privilege to participate in helping develop a solution to the state's financial crunch, but that's what they will do if they fail to let legislators know their thoughts on this issue. A vocal minority should not be allowed to set the state's fiscal course.

Participation doesn't require a trip to Juneau just a drive to Soldotna.

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