OPINION: One minute to midnight
Choosing a theme for our annual forecast edition cover isn’t usually a simple task — especially resisting the temptation for the easy way out by going with a fortune teller or a crystal ball — but that wasn’t the case as we prepare to ring in a new decade.
The famous Doomsday Clock ticking toward midnight is the best representation of where Alaska stands entering its sixth year grappling with a budgetary crisis that has now spanned three governors presiding over deficit spending that has all but drained our main savings accounts.
Looking back over the past six covers from a weather map featuring a forecast of hot air from Juneau in 2014 to a Magic 8 ball in 2019 (not a crystal ball, but close), and the progression is stark from irreverence focused on political drama to the reality entering 2020 that very little has changed for the better and time is truly up.
The 2015 cover of politicos playing poker featured just one — Democrat Rep. Chris Tuck of Anchorage — who is still in the same position and 2017 pictured a young girl with a Christmas wish for a budget solution.
In my 2017 forecast column, the situation then seemed dire enough to compel the Legislature into finding a solution:
“It’s almost appropriate that one of Gov. Bill Walker’s last acts of the year was to kill the Juneau Access Project, because the Legislature has run out of road to kick the can.
“The state’s savings won’t last more than another year and we’ll have to wait and see whether the dynamic of a three-way power struggle between the Republican Senate, Democrat House and independent governor forces a solution or only produces gridlock worse than what we’ve witnessed in the last two years.”
After the political death match of 2019 that saw the Legislature in multiple sessions spanning nearly half the year, court battles, rallies, vetoes, vitriolic rhetoric and ultimately the spawning of a recall campaign against Gov. Mike Dunleavy, suffice it to say that my latter take on the possibilities of 2017 was unfortunately the one that came true.
Turns out things could get worse. A lot worse.
Dunleavy’s first budget introduced this past February ranked somewhere between the Hindenburg and the Titanic in terms of successful debuts with its draconian if not impossible cuts and proposed clawbacks of local tax revenue on fish and oil infrastructure.
The budget created a shotgun marriage in the House with a few Republicans crossing the aisle to join Democrats in exchange for plum committee seats, but ultimately was destined to crack and lost Reps. Gabrielle LeDoux and Tammie Wilson over the size of the PFD and overriding Dunleavy’s vetoes, respectively.
The Senate majority, with 13 Republicans and Democrat Lyman Hoffman of Bethel, had superior numbers on paper but loose caucus rules designed to appeal to oft-intransient members from the Mat-Su Valley ended up backfiring on President Cathy Giessel.
On its face, Dunleavy’s second budget that features virtually no cuts, a full PFD according to the formula still on the books and emptying three-quarters of the Constitutional Budget Reserve to pay for it all looks like an abdication of leadership.
House Speaker Bryce Edgmon said as much in his response to the budget.
“Spending is only half of the budget, and the governor is deferring to the legislature on how to pay for it,” Edgmon said. “Alaska cannot afford to delay tough decisions another year.”
A common phrase regarding the obvious and involving Sherlock Holmes comes to mind in reading Edgmon’s statement.
The legislative leadership in both bodies spent the last year pounding their chests and asserting their appropriating superiority under the state Constitution; on similar arguments nearly two-thirds of the Legislature defied his call to a special session in Wasilla to take futile votes in Juneau that failed to override his vetoes totaling more than $400 million.
What Dunleavy did — in a move that has his new Chief of Staff Ben Stevens’ political savvy covering it like gravy — is give the Legislature exactly what they claim they want.
There are ideas — mostly in the Senate — for a spending cap and for changes to the PFD formula that would allow Alaska to finally put a stop to six years of stalemates and spending from savings.
Both pieces are vital, and neither should be derailed either by committee members who try to prevent a bill from reaching the floor or the governor’s threats of a veto.
There are parliamentary means to pull a bill from committee if the leadership believes it deserves a floor vote. If a reasonable solution makes it out of the Legislature to Dunleavy’s desk, what happens next is up to him but at least lawmakers will finally have a clear conscience that they did their jobs.
Dunleavy is absolutely right, though, that ill-crafted legislation that doesn’t check the growth of spending at the expense of the dividend will remain subject to repeal by referendum and therefore public buy-in is crucial.
Declaring himself open to solutions and compromise, Dunleavy has left legislators no excuses for another unproductive session.
Thanks to the $65 billion Permanent Fund and no shortage of promising prospects on the North Slope, Alaska remains blessed with the ability to take care of ourselves.
The time is now for the people we’ve elected to show they have the political will and aptitude to pull it off.
Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected].