It’s hard to know everything that’s going on in the Legislature. Here’s my perspective. We’re working to achieve a balanced and sustainable plan that will work for all Alaskans. We’re working to untangle the ball of string wound tight by past leadership.
It is a challenging situation. We have a $2.8 billion deficit. Our spending on each of us, once adjusted for inflation, has already been cut to the lowest level in the past decade and is about half of what it was just three years go. Bad deals on oil have stuck us with a liability in cashable oil subsidies of nearly one billion dollars by the end of this year. One of the three largest oil extractors in the state reported a production tax rate, after adjustments, of negative 7.7 percent. In recent years we have already given away more than $8 billion in subsidies. Clearly, reform is necessary. But in our current political and economic environment, we cannot close the deficit through oil reform alone. We need to get away from the past boom and bust “planning” of the past. We need revenues that are more stable, predictable and diverse.
The Senate proposed a cut of 5 percent to education which would mean a loss of over 700 Alaskan teachers. For Juneau, that means we would lose 22 teachers and three support staff, probably paraeducators like me. Since 2011, the district has reduced 98 staff and $11 million from program funding due to flat state funding and increasing costs. The proposed cuts would dramatically increase class sizes and could result in cuts to counselors, art and activities. The University of Alaska System is also facing a $22 million dollar budget reduction. We cannot sacrifice our children’s futures. A reasonable broad-based tax designated for education funding would provide our teachers and children with the stability that comes from knowing you won’t be cut next year. I am committed to education funding and I am certain that we will be able to prevent the 5 percent cut.
The Senate proposed cutting more than 10 percent from our state Pioneer Homes. As you know, this would mean closing some of the facilities and tossing elders onto the streets. It is terrible that some people’s respect for our elders depends on the price of oil. We can, and should, be better people.
Finally, there is Senate Bill 26. It came over to us with the PFD capped at $1,000. Taken alone, it would hit the poorest Alaskans 50 times harder than it would the highest earners, and it would not ask a penny from the non-residents who make up 20 percent of our workforce statewide. It would also restructure the Earnings Reserve of the Fund to help close the fiscal gap. We in the House could not accept it as presented to us. We changed the PFD calculation to set a floor of $1,250 instead of a ceiling of $1,000. Current projections are that it would be a bit higher and would rise. We also added language to say that it would only take effect if the Senate accepts our oil reform bill and institute a broad-based tax designated for education.
We face a pivotal moment. I can say with certainty that, together, we can master this moment to make a bright future for Alaska and Alaskans. What we need to master this moment is balance. And that is what we have been working on in the Legislature during this session.
• Justin Parish is a freshman member of the Alaska House of Representatives. He represents Juneau’s District 34.