Until the Legislature starts acting like a democratic institution, there's little hope for approving a long-range fiscal plan or resolving the subsistence controversy, former Gov. Jay Hammond told a variety of Juneau audiences this morning.
Hammond, in town to promote his new book of memoirs, "Chips from the Chopping Block," treated Juneau-Gastineau Rotarians and audiences of two broadcast outlets to unvarnished observations on what he thinks is wrong with the political process, as well as his suggestions for solving the big issues facing the Legislature when it convenes Monday.
The former Republican governor, now co-chairperson of the gubernatorial campaign of Democratic Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer, said that almost everything that ails the Legislature can be attributed to the reluctance of the majority of members to step on the turf of committee chairmen.
"We vest in that committee chairman arbitrary powers," he said. "A major reason for frustration on the part of the public the proliferation of referendums and initiatives in an attempt to bypass some of the legislative process, the distress with gridlock, the inability to see them making any progress is related to the fact that we permit one arbitrary individual the committee chairman to lock bills up in committee, without any methods and means of relatively painlessly extracting them from committee and compelling the body to vote on them."
For example, Hammond said the only way to pass an increase in the alcohol excise tax is "to break the back of this process."
In 2001, House Finance Co-Chairman Bill Williams, a Saxman Republican, held up a proposed "dime a drink" increase in the tax, although there has appeared to be wide support for an increase both in the Legislature and in public opinion polls. House Speaker Brian Porter, though, recently said he expects Williams' committee to move on the legislation fairly quickly this year.
But Hammond said the ongoing budget deficits and divisiveness about how to protect the subsistence way of life could have been resolved years ago if majority will hadn't been thwarted by committee chairmen.
"It denies the public the right to know where legislators stand on issues," he said.
Hammond remains passionate about priorities for a long-range fiscal plan.
As the governor who presided over creation of the permanent fund in 1976, he doesn't believe that the permanent fund dividend should be capped because that amounts to "a head tax" on Alaska residents, while transient workers would contribute nothing to state revenues.
As for using "excess" earnings of the permanent fund the amount remaining after dividends are paid and principal is inflation-proofed that should be a last resort after new taxes are imposed, and there should be a percentage cap on how much of those earnings the Legislature could take, he said.
Hammond sees merit to both income taxes, if they're capped at the level of the dividend, and seasonal sales taxes.
And he noted with apparent amusement that the tourism industry is asking the state for a $12 million boost in marketing, post-Sept. 11. Asked in an interview if he favored a cruise ship head tax, Hammond said: "What is the one burgeoning industry that has done very, very well indeed?"