Crunch time is closer than legislators think

Posted: Sunday, December 14, 2003

Kenai Peninsula residents should wonder when their legislators will think "crunch time" has arrived.

Two members of the peninsula legislative delegation recently told the Kenai City Council it is unlikely there will be movement in Juneau this legislative session to increase state revenues by creating new taxes or using a portion of permanent fund earnings.

"We're not at crunch time yet," they said.

Does the Constitutional Budget Reserve fund have to run dry before legislators decide its time to act? What kind of mess do the state's cities and school districts, not to mention the state's own agencies, have to get into before lawmakers have the will to do something differently than what they've been doing?

Waiting will only make the state's financial problems worse. Alaskans can't bank on new oil and gas development to save them.

Under the latest forecast from the Department of Revenue, the Constitutional Budget Reserve the fund the state uses to make up the difference between how much it spends and how much it takes in will be gone by May 2007.

Do Alaskans really want legislators to wait until that cushion is completely gone before they act?

Oil revenues continue to provide most of the state's operating funds more than 80 percent of them. Yet, oil production levels are roughly half of what they were in 1989, at Alaska's peak production.

As Department of Revenue Commissioner Bill Corbus said in releasing the state's revenue forecast Friday: "Oil production has fallen to just under 1 million barrels per day (from its peak of 2 million barrels a day in 1989), and as a result, we face a structural deficit that requires annual expenditures from the (Constitutional Budget Reserve) even when oil prices are over $30 per barrel."

If peninsula residents disagree with their legislators about when "crunch time" is, they should let them know. On this issue, we believe Alaskans are far more willing to make the tough decisions than their elected officials are. But, of course, most Alaskans are not up for re-election next year.

On the issue of budgets and money, the deadline is Monday to complete a budget survey for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. The survey is an opportunity for residents to identify their budget priorities. Among the options included on the survey are reducing personnel costs, increasing class sizes, consolidating schools, eliminating programs, reducing or eliminating funding for cocurricular activities, and adjusting health insurance.

The district is facing another year of financial shortfalls and more tough budget decisions. Administrators hope the community feedback will help them make those difficult choices.

The district's budget review committee will meet from 1 to 5 p.m. Jan. 8 and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Jan. 12. The deadline for applications to serve on that committee also is Monday.

The survey and committee application forms can be found on the district's Web site at www.kpbsd.k12.ak.us, under the "Budget Review Committee" link. It's a terrific opportunity for the community to get involved in an important process.

And, if you think legislators should increase funding for education, let them know. If you're willing to pay a tax or accept a smaller permanent fund dividend to allow them to increase funding for education, let them know that, too.

The second session of the 23rd Alaska Legislature gets under way in Juneau Jan. 12.

While anything "government" does is a favorite target of criticism, when "government" does a good thing, it should be noted.

The Bear-Safe Neighborhood Project now under way in the Valhalla Heights and Shaginoff subdivisions in Kenai is one such an example.

The project is a model of cooperation between different government agencies, a nonprofit organization, a for-profit business and the residents in those neighborhoods.

The project has been a huge success with not one single nuisance bear complaint from the area since the program began in June. In the past, the neighborhoods have been known for lots of bear activity.

Among those who have been involved in the program: the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the Audubon Society, the Kenai Police Department, Peninsula Sanitation and, of course, the residents.

The hope is the program will spread to other neighborhoods.

Among the most valuable lessons of the program is that of cooperation.

As John Schoen, a senior scientist with Alaska Audubon and one of those responsible for the project's inception, put it: "It's really shown what can be accomplished when people communicate and work together."

Hats off to all those involved in the project.



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