Alaska Editorial: No state services without costs

The following editorial first appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

 

And so it begins, as expected: people complaining about some state-maintained roadways not being cleared of snow fast enough.

Well, what do you expect after years of budget cuts to the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, and other departments, and no long-term sustainable budget plan from the Legislature?

“Reduced budgets have impacted our response time,” DOT’s northern region spokeswoman told a Daily News-Miner reporter earlier this week. “Each station is now responsible for an area that is just a little larger, and we have less staff and equipment. We still plow in the same order, but our response time is longer.”

Some Alaskans refuse to believe a connection exists between revenue and services.

Budget-cutting has been going on for years, yet many Alaskans seem to think that cutting can go on forever. Those opposed to any form of taxation or use of the Alaska Permanent Fund earnings to help close the state’s multi-billion budget deficit this year and to prevent the recurrence of such deficits in subsequent years adhere to a bumper-sticker argument that government is fat, that more efficiencies can be found, and so on.

The problem with the argument that “government is fat” is that it’s a subjective argument. We don’t hear people saying that the state services they use should be cut. Rather, it’s the services they don’t see or don’t use, the services used by others, that presumably are the fat that should be sliced. Another oft-stated target is administration. Surely, the argument goes, the government can run just as well with fewer people running it.

This isn’t to argue that efficiencies can’t be found and shouldn’t be sought, and that wasteful programs should be terminated or perhaps privatized. We always should be looking for ways to operate in the most cost-effective manner.

The reality today, however, is that the level of services are now — finally — being affected.

Another reality is that Alaskans continue to live their lives free of paying a state sales or income tax while also receiving an annual dividend from oil revenue.

Will Alaskans at some point say “Enough!” Will 2017 be the year that public pressure on the Legislature will build until real progress will be made toward finding that elusive, long-term and sustainable solution?

Or will we let public safety continue to be put at risk by delays in clearing key roadways? Will we simply accept the scaling back of programs, both academic and athletic, at our magnificent University of Alaska? Will we just continue to complain while failing to recognize the slow decay of our fine state?

The first regular session of the new assembly of state lawmakers — the 30th Alaska Legislature — begins Jan. 17. For the first time in decades, the political balance is different: a Democratic-led coalition will control the House of Representatives, while the Senate remains in Republican control. Maybe a divided Legislature will force compromise. Maybe that in turn will lead to an improved relationship between the Legislature and Gov. Bill Walker, a former Republican who won office as an independent.

Alaska doesn’t have time to mess around.

This isn’t a Republican problem, a Democratic problem or a problem of any other political profile. Without a sustainable budget solution, the annual Permanent Fund dividend soon will disappear, as will our savings accounts.

Alaska’s ship of state will be on the rocks.

Then what?

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