Lawmakers should not prolong the inevitable

Empire editorial

Posted: Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Some members of the Alaska Legislature actually grasp the notion that a special legislative session is needed this summer to solve the state's budget gap of some $65 million to $80 million, money needed to supplement the $2.3 billion budget passed at the end of the legislative session.

The special session is needed for a couple of reasons. Record-high oil prices that are temporarily filling state coffers certainly won't sustain themselves. Prices of $40 per barrel and higher are great for the time being, but more moderate prices will once again put pressure on lawmakers to raise new revenues and curb spending.

That's why it makes even more sense for legislators to reconvene this summer and focus on solving the state's economic woes when they're not under the gun to do so next year or the year after. To wait only prolongs the inevitable.

The conventional wisdom at the moment suggests the state should impose higher taxes on the oil companies that are doing so well for themselves and their shareholders during these flush times, but the time will soon come when that source of additional revenue will be far less robust than it is today.

Other sources of revenue must be developed. Lawmakers knew that during the past legislative session, yet they made no progress in securing any of them.

Some lawmakers are showing a disinterest in a special session now because they don't want the state to have to bear the cost, and because they don't want their colleagues to get sidetracked with projects that aren't mission-critical to the budget.

The Legislature missed a couple of opportunities in not passing an oil tax or a tobacco tax during the 2004 session, but it does have something to show in the $82 million in increased funding it provided for K-12 education. Much more should have been accomplished, nonetheless.

One of the big concerns some legislators have, and with just cause, is that the window of opportunity for using a portion of the Alaska Permanent Fund to fund state government may close this year and that it could be a long time in getting the proposal back on the table. Gov. Frank Murkowski offered a workable plan for the permanent fund - and one which should have been cleared for a vote by all Alaskans this fall - but that opportunity was shot down as well.

The state's budget ills aren't going to cure themselves, and legislators who think a special session is unnecessary are misjudging the importance of the work that must get done sooner rather than later. If today's high oil prices have created a false sense of financial security, a near-economic collapse 12 or 18 months from now will surely renew their sense of urgency.

This is an election year for Alaska legislators. Those who are hoping they've dodged a bullet in not proposing new taxes and other means of raising revenues this year may, by early fall, wish they'd done so. Voters don't generally like new or additional taxes, but they're smart enough to recognize when fiscal responsibility isn't being met.

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