GUEST COMMENTARY: An Alaska we can all believe in

  • Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage. (Photo/Rashah McChesney/AP)

The debate in Juneau is about what kind of state we want to live in. I want an Alaska we can all believe in, not one where too many of our neighbors are talking about leaving.

I think the Alaska House Majority Coalition and the GOP-led Senate, despite divergent views, can find common ground. Your views matter. I believe legislators will listen if you speak up. Here’s where we are today.

On one side, the GOP-led Senate is standing by major additional cuts to public education and our university.

These cuts also hit Alaska’s abused and neglected children, and seniors and Alaskans born with disabilities who battle every day for a life with dignity.

Alaska is already facing a dwindling ability to battle and prevent crime with inadequate troopers, prosecutors, and police. That’s not the Alaska I believe in.

Then there’s the economy, the recession, and the job losses we face. Our neighbors are talking about leaving Alaska. They see little commitment to the schools where they send their children, or to supporting the economy their businesses rely on.

According to the University of Alaska’s Institute of Social and Economic Research, cuts beyond the $3.4 billion in budget cuts since 2013 will kill more private and public sector jobs, extending a recession we should fix instead.

Studies show that each extra $100 million in budget cuts, by circulating less money to our businesses, the housing market, and the economy, will cost us another 1,000 – 1,500 jobs lost, mostly from the private sector.

That’s on top of the 6,500 jobs Alaska lost last year.

Let’s get one red herring off the table. We all believe in cutting waste. But since 2013 the Alaska Legislature has cut over 40 percent from the state’s budget.

We have the second smallest per capita budget in the past 42 years, when adjusted for inflation.

The Senate effectively conceded there’s not a ton more waste to cut to fill the $2.6 billion budget deficit, when they aimed the bulk of their proposed budget cuts at public schools and other Alaska priorities.

Many legislators of all parties privately admit we’ve cut too far.

This makes the Senate proposal more perplexing. Our Senate colleagues have passed $65 million in public education cuts, which will likely lead to the loss of 400 – 600 more teachers, counselors, and support staff statewide at a time when our schools have already been losing counselors and student support.

The Senate has proposed over $5 million in cuts to the Pioneer Homes, which they now concede was a mistake. They have proposed $39 million in cuts to the department that protects our seniors, disabled Alaskans, innocent children who’ve been victimized by child abuse and neglect, and many others living on the edge.

The Department of Health and Social Services, which has already been cut by roughly $200 million since 2015, cannot absorb those additional cuts, beyond the $30 million in careful efficiency cuts the governor and the Alaska House Majority Coalition found, without hurting our most vulnerable neighbors.

Our only state mental health institution is already so underfunded that people are shorted on treatment for mental illness and to prevent suicides. Thirty percent of released patients are readmitted within six months.

The Alaska House Majority Coalition found another $81 million in cuts this year, without harming these Alaskans.

There is room for consensus. The Senate says they need make these cuts because we have a $2.6 billion budget hole. But they only partially fill that hole, with a plan that cuts the PFD to $1,000.

We shouldn’t do only part of the job or put it on the backs of the poorest and most vulnerable Alaskans. We can find a fair resolution. The Alaska House Majority Coalition has said part of the plan must be a fair share for our oil and an end to unaffordable oil company subsidies.

We propose an increase from last year’s dividend to $1,250, instead of the Senate’s $1,000.

And we proposed a very modest school tax that seeks a contribution from those most able to pay, with the funds going to public education. If approved, the school tax would be the fourth smallest income tax in the nation.

Under that proposal, a joint filer, for example, would pay no income tax on their first $31,000 in income, and would only pay $25 on each $1,000 in income above that.

Rates would modestly rise on Alaskans with greater wealth and a greater ability to contribute.

I wish there were a magic way to end job losses. All legislators want a bright future for our residents. We need a balanced approach that fully solves our deficit.

We can’t kick the can down the road anymore.


Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, is the vice chair of the House Finance Committee. You can find legislator e-mails by calling 269-0111.

04/26/2017 - 12:53pm