This editorial first appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:
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Oil and gas may be dominating the day in Juneau, but in reality the Legislature doesn't have to approve any legislation whatsoever on the topic. The only the thing the Legislature is required to do, under the Alaska Constitution, is to approve a budget. That's it. Legislators don't have to do anything else if they don't want to.
And yet that one required item - the budget - has been getting scant public attention because of the intense focus on Gov. Frank Murkowski's proposed changes to the state's oil tax system and his administration's effort to bring forth a contract that could lead to construction of a natural gas pipeline from the North Slope.
But it is the state budget that will have the most immediate effect on people. The governor's oil legislation and the pending gas line contract will affect the state in profound, if still unclear, ways that will develop over time and will certainly bring major change to the budget. Yet budget decisions are being made that need greater public attention.
House Speaker John Harris said on Monday, in a briefing with reporters, that passing a budget is his No. 1 concern and that it should be the top concern of all in the Legislature. There's some word, too, that "concern" may have a different meaning for many lawmakers and that their definition could make for some budget clashes with the governor. The operating budget put forward by the governor spends 21 percent more in general funds than it did last year. Add in the capital budget, which pays for construction projects and such, and the number moves closer to 25 percent. Alaska does have a projected surplus of more than $1 billion from the current fiscal year, but that would be eaten up - and then some.
That's got lawmakers nervous. Fairbanks Republican Sen. Gary Wilken, co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, says the governor has presented "a really difficult budget." The budget has grown substantially, but the important thing in the mind of Sen. Wilken - and he doesn't have a reputation as a budget hawk - is the unsustainability of the budget. Over time, and with the mandatory increases in fixed costs, the state won't be able to keep it up.
The message here is this: Legislators should heed the warning and resist the urge to spend for spending's sake without regard to how Alaska will pay for new and expanded programs and the maintenance of new buildings in the years ahead.
It's easy for a legislator to vote yes to spending millions upon millions when the perception exists that the state is swimming in a pool of cash and that the pool won't run dry any time soon. It's easy to vote to bring home millions for the benefit of constituents, especially with the election season just a couple months off.
Much more responsible is the legislator who pauses and asks the questions and maybe votes no if the answers dictate it: Do we really need this new program? How much will we be paying for that new program five or 10 years from now? Does this other program really need to expand that much? And what about that building or port expansion?
The pressure to spend will likely be even greater today following Tuesday's expected announcement - earlier than usual, by the way - of the administration's semiannual revenue forecast. The forecast, coupled with the additional revenue expected to come with approval of the governor's new oil tax system, would add several hundred million dollars to the state treasury. Wish lists are probably already being written up.
As the pressure to spend builds, however, legislators should apply some counterpressure and ask the hard questions that Alaskans should expect them to ask.