Mayors chastise lawmakers for shifting fiscal burden

Conference calls for Legislature to close state budget gap so cities don't carry the financial load

Posted: Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Alaska's mayors have given an unprecedented "no confidence" vote in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

Lawmakers' failure to close the state's chronic budget shortfalls have shifted more expenses - and higher taxes - to local governments and their residents, the Alaska Conference of Mayors said Tuesday.

"Every day we deal with our budgets. We take the heat," said Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich. "That's what we're asking for - fill the void. Make the decision."

Begich and other mayors said they would hold lawmakers accountable - through report cards on a legislator's record - if no action is taken this year on closing the state's budget gap.

In a strongly worded resolution, the group representing about 100 Alaska cities and boroughs is warning that an economic crash similar to the oil price crash in the mid-1980s is on the horizon.

The Alaska Conference of Mayors is affiliated with the Alaska Municipal League, the chief lobbying arm for local governments.

Those groups have been encouraging lawmakers for several years to close chronic state budget shortfalls that have reached hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

Lawmakers have passed several small tax increases on alcohol and tobacco, and imposed other fee increases. Local governments have called on lawmakers to take up broad-based taxes to make state revenue match spending.

But the Legislature last session spurned a statewide sales tax - which local governments opposed - and most GOP lawmakers along with Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski have rejected talk of a state income tax.

Murkowski cut about $250 million from state spending last session to help balance the state budget, including millions in cuts to local governments.

For the 415-person town of McGrath on the Kuskokwim River, where state revenue sharing is about 20 percent of its budget, more cuts in state spending could mean an end to sewer and water utilities, said Mayor Dustin Parker.

"We're right on the cusp and another budget cut will close us down for good," Parker said.

Murkowski has called a special session to force the Legislature to consider a change in the Alaska Permanent Fund - the oil royalty account that pays an annual dividend to Alaskans - that could help close the budget gap.

The Conference of Mayors said local governments and their taxpayers have suffered because of legislative inaction. The group called on lawmakers to act this year to head off a "crash and burn" of the economy like that of the mid-1980s.

Local governments have seen a 33 percent increase in property taxes as the state shifts more expenses onto them, schools have suffered, and more than 30 rural communities have been forced to cut or reduce essential services such as public safety and road maintenance, the group said.

Palmer Mayor Jim Cooper said they plan to formulate a report card on lawmakers' positions on closing the budget gap for voters in their district.

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