Alaska editorial: The budget oath is a blemish on Legislature

Posted: Friday, April 27, 2007

This editorial appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

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A brief legislative episode about funding for the University of Alaska shows just how screwy the Legislature can be at times.

Earlier this month Sen. Joe Thomas, a Democrat from Fairbanks, tried to get the Senate Finance Committee to approve an amendment to increase the university's funding by an additional $4.9 million. The money was needed, Sen. Thomas said, so that the university could pay for increases in fixed costs such as utilities. Some of the proposed extra money would also help pay for health care and engineering programs at the three main campuses.

The committee didn't bite on the amendment by Sen. Thomas, whose district includes the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Enter Republican Sen. Gary Wilken, also of Fairbanks.

Sen. Wilken, a longtime university supporter now grazing in the wilderness of the Senate minority, took Sen. Thomas' amendment and put it forward on the Senate floor.

Here's where it gets screwy: Sen. Thomas voted against the very idea that he had previously been championing.

Blame it on "The Oath."

Legislators in the majority are required to vote in favor of the majority's budget plan. It's the price of admission.

Putting a budget together is hard work, no question about it. Everyone wants a piece of it. Requiring legislators to take a blood oath to support the budget or risk being tossed from the majority is nothing more than a way to make the task easier by reducing the number of people who have to be pleased with the final product. The budget oath succeeds by playing on the simple fact that many legislators would rather retain positions of power than vote their conscience on what is one of the most important votes a legislator will cast each year.

Legislators who take the budget oath when they join the majority group will say to critics that they can better serve their constituents by casting a personally disagreeable vote on the budget so that they can stay on the majority side in the Capitol.

Maybe. Maybe not.

The budget oath - and it has been around for years and years - is a blemish on the Legislature. How much of one it is, however, is something that voters will have to decide when looking at their own senator or representative.

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