Short-term cuts may cause long-term damage
In what are well-intentioned efforts to do everything possible to narrow a $4-billion budget gap, the appropriators in the Alaska Legislature may end up doing more harm than good.
There is simply no way to cut a way out of this deficit, which should have put the emphasis from the jump on structural reforms rather than nickel-and-dime reductions in the budget.
So far, the only such attempts are the effort to reform Medicaid from its unsustainable path and an operating budget that rejects 2.5 percent pay raises for unionized state employees in the next fiscal year.
Union officials may be grumbling about this, and Gov. Bill Walker expressed his concern over it to the Associated Press, but a pay freeze for state workers is hardly an unwarranted action, and is one they should still prefer over outright job cuts.
Other than that, the Legislature has spent time on sideshows such as daylight savings time and resolutions to demand all federal land be transferred to the state along with budget cuts that add up to little more than a duck passing gas in the wind.
The cuts won’t solve anything, but like the proverbial butterfly flapping its wings they threaten to cause damaging ripple effects.
Consider the proposed $11 million in cuts to the state ferry system. That amounts to to 0.27 percent of the deficit. The effect of the cut, however, could displace more than 9,000 people who have already purchased tickets for travel this summer. More than two-thirds of them are tourists, which is the third-largest industry in Alaska.
Is it worth saving $11 million to cause this much disruption to ferry customers and tour operators who rely on the system? The potential for souring people on their trip to Alaska, displacing state residents who have booked travel, creating a picture of unreliability for the ferry system and sticking tour operators with the problem is hardly worth the savings.
Then there is Walker’s elimination of $5 million in funding for the Chinook Salmon Research Initiative, a multi-year effort to better understand the iconic state fish upon which an eons-old subsistence lifestyle is based and whose health — or lack of it — impacts every sector of the commercial and sport fishing industries.
Given the stakes of achieving sustained and strong king salmon runs, refusing to fund this vital research is not a better outcome for the state compared to the good it can accomplish.
Similarly, the slashing of the funding for Alaska Public Media from $5 million to $2.5 million to zero is also pointless and will disproportionately impact rural Alaskans who don’t have as many information sources.
Walker’s decision to cut $8 million in funding for the Ambler Road environmental impact statement and ordering a halt to all work on the project also achieves nothing while setting back a vital long-term effort to open up a resource-rich area that will create hundreds if not thousands of well-paying jobs and help lower the cost of living in the area.
The real pineapple on this upside-down cake of ill-conceived and ineffective cuts, though, is the effort to screw around with the Interior Energy Project by stripping $45 million in previously appropriated funds for the effort.
While the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority explores the possibility of sourcing gas from Cook Inlet in an attempt to achieve the goal of first gas to Fairbanks by the end of 2016, Rep. Mike Hawker of Anchorage is throwing up amendments that will ensure it won’t happen.
Interior stakeholders are right to compare the expense for the IEP to the cost of tax credits totaling $700 million in the last several years to subsidize the Cook Inlet gas resurgence.
That’s more than a fair point; it is a convincing argument. Interior residents don’t deserve another year without a plan to lower their energy costs and improve air quality.
Times like these are why we have savings accounts. It’s also the time when we need our legislators and governor to step up to the plate and deliver. As the session nears its close, we’ve seen a lot of small ball instead of home runs.
Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected].