Concern for state's fiscal health a top Alaska 20-20 topic

PHOTO/Lisa Seifert/For the Journal
Five hundred Alaskans, including almost one-third of the state Legislature, met in Anchorage Nov. 27-28 for the kickoff of "Alaska 20-20," an initiative by the Alaska Humanities Forum for residents of the state to chart a long-term plan for the future.

The effort was to define "what kind of community we want our children to take over," said Ira Perman, who heads the Humanities Forum.

Those at the conference split into working groups to tackle issues like the sustainability of the state’s economy, public services and education.

Perman said the immediate effort was aimed at defining goals and benchmarks against which to measure progress in a similar gathering next year and in following years.

The idea for Alaska 20-20 grew out of a meeting of 40 long-time Alaskans held two years ago. "There was an anxiety about the future that they felt, as nice as things seemed to be going then," Perman said.

"The current generation of adult Alaskans have seen pretty good times. The economy was good, as was the quality of life," Perman said. "It was like a float down a river. But there were some that detected the sound of rapids ahead."

Concern for the state’s economy and the fiscal structure of state government were major themes in the Nov. 27-28 conference. "You can’t have a high quality of life without a sound economy," Perman said.

Ron Shoaf, an Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. senior manager and one of the participants in Alaska 20-20, said that several recent findings by a coalition of business groups he works with, through the Alaska State Chamber of Commerce, are causes for concern about the state’s future.

The coalition, which participated in the Alaska 20-20 conference, also includes the Resource Development Council for Alaska Inc. and the Alaska High-Tech Business Council.

One finding is that Alaska ranks 49th out of the 50 states in the rate of personal income growth. The rate of income growth in Alaska is one fourth that of the next state, ranking 48th. Most of the income growth that has occurred in Alaska can be traced to higher Alaska Permanent Fund dividends and increased government and oil industry spending, Shoaf said.

Another indicator is that the amount of per capita personal income has dropped from 150 percent above the national average a few years ago to a point just above the national average, Shoaf said.

One other troubling sign is that there is no growth on the state’s "under 40" population. Alaska has a high birth rate but this is being offset by high out-migration of young people in search of better employment opportunities elsewhere.

Jamie Kenworthy of the Alaska Science and Technology Foundation, who headed the Alaska 20-20 session on a sustainable economy, said his group didn’t come to any clear consensus.

This was no surprise, given that surveys indicate a huge disconnect between what the public thinks about the economy and what business leaders, who have their fingers on its pulse, think, Kenworthy said.

A recent survey showed that business leaders are somewhat pessimistic about the next three to five years, he said. A public survey, on the other hand, showed 75 percent of respondents are optimistic.

"We see a larger issue, of the public not understanding the state’s economic base, and where the money comes from to run the economy," Kenworthy said.

"This is particularly true of people in services and education. The challenge is for people not to be confused about where the dollars that sustains jobs in the schools, business and industry come from, and how we can grow this," he said.

12/09/2001 - 8:00pm