One argument heard against putting forward a November ballot measure authorizing use of Alaska Permanent Fund earnings for public services is perverse: What if Alaskans said no? What if a "no" vote on use of permanent fund earnings made the job that much harder for legislators afterward?
Well, what if it did?
That wouldn't make the problem go away, and it wouldn't relieve legislators of their duty. It would only raise the political price of dithering and demagoguery. It would, in fact, increase the future chances of a more evenhanded response to Alaska's fiscal imbalance.
But that's getting ahead of things. The problem right now is getting the Alaska Senate to act.
Gov. Frank Murkowski, to his credit, has done so. He is pushing hard for a fiscal solution he likes, which is to use permanent fund earnings first and address taxes later. (Cutting spending is the only approach that's been tried so far, and by now that's getting harder and harder.) The House agreed with him last week. Their solution isn't the best one, but it's a good one - and far better than nothing. The Senate should either agree to it or produce its own plan and then negotiate the differences.
Either way, the voters-may-refuse argument is no reason to delay. The last time the Legislature put a plan to the voters, it was a one-sided mess that was slaughtered at the polls in 1999. That means the burden of leadership is to define a better solution - and to go out and show voters why it's better. It doesn't mean ducking the problem until some mythical future when voters will better feel the politicians' pain or the iron laws of economics will be repealed. It means leadership. Gov. Murkowski, despite his 2002 campaign, is now supplying some.
Legislators already have the authority to use permanent fund earnings by majority vote. The reason they don't is that two consecutive governors, for their own reasons, have made public votes a precondition politically.
That gives the Legislature two good options: Grasp the nettle and use the authority it already has, or put it to voters for a choice as the governor demands.
But legislators have chosen a third, bad option year after year: dipping into reserves in order to avoid the problem. That was defensible a few times in bad years, but it's simply dereliction of duty to continue that practice for 12 out of 14 years and at times of historically high oil prices.
Further stalemate is worse than any of the viable answers. The Senate should move forward on the POMV plan approved by the House because it's a decent solution to a problem that won't go away. Then voters can decide for themselves whether the solution is decent enough for them.
Time is not on the side of the recalcitrants. Several recent opinion polls show Alaskans want this problem resolved this year. (And reserves are still dwindling.) Polls also show that POMV is not necessarily the most popular choice. These are sensible views, whether legislators share them or not. POMV is a good solution, but a one-sided one. If voters rejected POMV this fall, there would be even greater pressure later to produce a more rounded long-term plan, probably including a progressive income tax.
So what if voters say no? Hopefully they won't; it's time to put this whole issue to rest. But if they did, it would only put the onus back on elected officials to do their duty. Alaska has plenty of money and plenty of choices. What the problem really demands is a little leadership and a little courage.
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