My Turn: Alaska voters are not very likely to turn against Santa Claus

Posted: Sunday, May 26, 2002

The Alaska Legislature adjourned May 21 - seven days late - for which lawmakers will be criticized. But they quit at an appropriate point. They quit without closing Alaska's fiscal gap between income and expenses, without solving the subsistence issue, without appointing people to fill board vacancies, without offering constitutional amendments - including a cap on spending - and without passing a few other measures that need more scrutiny or are better off dead.

Inaction on those items is appropriate. Alaskans will do fine until after a primary election Aug. 27 and a general election Nov. 5 when they elect a new governor and 57 of the 60 Alaska legislators in new election districts resulting from reapportionment. The house speaker and the senate president say they won't be back. The constitution prevents the current governor from a third term. So, there will be a new leadership team.

A new governor and new legislative leadership might solve problems that the current team has been unable to solve for the past eight to 10 years. It's appropriate - and time - we try a new team.

It was appropriate also to bypass approval of this governor's board appointments. Current members can serve until replaced or interim appointments can be made. The next governor and legislators should make the regular appointments. They'll work with the appointees. The same goes for reauthorizing the Regulatory Commission of Alaska, the construction of a gas pipeline and authorization of a private prison.

The new team might come up with some programs boosting economic development after 10 years of losing high-paying jobs and industry. One candidate for governor, Frank Murkowski, served as the state's commissioner of economic development, 1966-70, when Alaska had a successful cabinet post dedicated to economic development.

Prospective lawmakers and candidates for any Alaska public office interested in a direction for the state should review state history. The best recent text on that is by former Gov. Walter Hickel. His book is, "Crisis in the Commons; The Alaska Solution."

What's important in Hickel's book is the Alaska history he outlines, and Alaska's successful development of an owner state, in which the people of the state own and manage the resources in common. He suggests Alaska as a model for developing countries and has expressed such views at frequent international forums in which he has participated. He also has recommendations for Alaskans for improving the owner state with such simple things as a single six-year term for governor, reducing the veto power of the Legislature's committee chairmen, creating a community dividend from earnings of the Permanent Fund.

The history he recites is indisputable. Alaskans may or may not agree on some of his recommendations, but he accurately describes what makes an owner state fiscally effective.

With 57 of 60 legislative seats open for election, and with up to four influential legislative leaders retiring, there might be an entire new body with new ideas next year. Don't count on it. Many lawmakers will be back. Republicans will remain in control with new leaders, and probably working with a Republican administration. The reason for that prediction is the Republican gain in voter registration in Alaska. In 10 years, the number of those registered as Democrats has grown to only 70,000 from 60,000. The number registered as Republicans has grown to 112,000 from 70,000.

Also, although it was little publicized with the battle over a fiscal plan, subsistence, appointments, veterans' legislation and RCA, the lawmakers made the home town folks happy. They approved capitalspending projects totaling $1.2 billion, $109 million of that from the state's general fund, the rest federal. In addition, they are asking the voters to approve in November $464 million in bonds for more capital spending for the University of Alaska, schools, education and transportation. And there is more. If the voters approve the school bonds, the lawmakers have agreed to cover 70 percent of the cost to local school districts for school construction. That's a lot of pork to spread around a pig pen even as large as Alaska. And it is spread from one end of the state to the other. Only $200 million goes to Anchorage.

So how do Alaskans vote against Santa Claus, especially when, unlike most Santas, he won't send a bill for at least another year?

Williams is retired publisher of the Ketchikan Daily News and a former member of the University of Alaska Board of Regents.

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